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My friend left academia for industry last month. He posted online: “I spent years hearing how ‘flexible’ academic [life] is but now disagree. How often did I tell my family things would ‘slow down’ after X? Academia was unstructured but not flexible. Structure (sick/vacation days!) with good management = flexibility.”1

He’s got a point. If I am my own middle manager, how can I apply my own “good management” to structure my time with actual flexibility? I think it might look like the structure of a flame: light and warmth directed and held in place by the invisible air.

Some parts of how I structure my time are necessary burdens, and others less necessary. I choose to structure teaching around research, so that students work on biochemistry research projects in lab sections. This creates learning opportunities, but it also feels like it creates an obligation for me to be there at all times.

In these times, what do I do if I catch COVID and have to isolate for a week or more? Someone else will need to step in who doesn’t have all the project-specific “tacit knowledge” that I’m trying to impart, to use Michael Polanyi’s term. An example of this knowledge is the students’ ability to turn a written protocol into a tangible experimental result, and it has a cost on me as their teacher. Their real-life learning burns through my mental energy, which is a sort of tax—or surcharge—on my overall time, and it is a cost worth paying.

This cost is not constant. Over the past two years, I have noticed my students have more gaps in this crucial “tacit knowledge” than before, and I modify the protocols as a result. I feel more need to step in and correct a small problem before it becomes a big one—but this removes the best kind of learning, the kind that comes through independence and troubleshooting.

Carefully planned teaching, in a time where students need more help than ever, carries with it a burden of inflexibility in a time of increasing and pervasive burdens—everything from economics to public health. These burdens can add up to the burnout we all feel lurking.

Behind me as I type this sits Teaching With Fire, a book I received 18 years ago in New Faculty Seminar. It’s inspirational to “teach with fire” but invites burnout.

As a teacher of thermodynamics (which can be paraphrased as “fire-motion”), I don’t just tell students about the double-edged nature of fire, I make them quantify it with calorimetry and calculations. As a learner, I turn to the poets and philosophers.

Fire’s necessity and danger is built in to the structure of the universe. Shakespeare described fire’s double edge well in Sonnet 73:

In me thou seest the glowing of such fire       

That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,

As the death-bed whereon it must expire,      

Consumed with that which it was nourished by.        

Life as fire was applied by the philosopher Blaise Pascal to the spiritual life. On Monday, November 23, 1654, for two hours, this rational academic experienced something that changed him for life, written down in a few dozen lines with a single initial word: “FIRE.” This lesson impressed itself so deeply that he wrote it out and sewed it inside his coat, until the day of his death.2 Fire is life, and life is fire.

These poetic and philosophical connections hold up at the atomic level. When a candle burns, it consumes wax and oxygen, and expels carbon dioxide and water. As Shakespeare and Pascal noted, we burn too, either consumed (in Shakespeare) or propelled and transformed (in Pascal) —or both. As the first chemists measured, we burn with exactly the same reaction as a candle:3 carbon-hydrogen and oxygen-oxygen bonds in, carbon-oxygen and hydrogen-oxygen bonds out. Life and fire use the same chemistry.

I was reminded of this insight through the recent Advent season. My church includes a team of artists and designers who develop a visual theme for each liturgical season.4 For Advent, the common image before each service was a red-gold candle flame that, when you look closer, is not a flame but a fingerprint. The fiery whorls and ridges echo the biochemical cycles of reactions that make all sorts of molecules while heating our warm-blooded flesh, chemically universal but pneumatologically unique.

These flames were all made by God. Since “our God is a consuming fire”5 and the Author of life, these examples of flame and life may reveal something about the One who created them. The theologian Katherine Sonderegger, in her Systematic Theology, thinks so. Sonderegger describes the mystery and elusive nature of the Trinity with the metaphor of fire.

Sonderegger writes, “The mystery of fire, as of water, is deep in humanity’s bones: it cauterizes and smelts, it destroys, it feeds and saves.”6 As through a glass darkly, God too is mysterious, dynamic, and impossible to grasp: “The Lord God of Israel is not inert. Stable and Faithful, yes—even Intellectual—but this True God is not pure idea. … The Lord God just is Holy Fire. … this life is productive—fecund—so that the Livingness of God is directed toward an End, a Perfection and Perfect Gift.”7

Beyond each similarity is a greater dissimilarity. God forms the light, but also creates darkness. God is not made of the elements, but neither is God a process. In Christ, we can see that God pours out Godself as the flame pours out light and heat, but much more, because this pouring out has a direction which is both us-ward and heavenward, making peace:

 “And wonderfully, that astonishing Self-Gift is not the Goal, the Terminus, of the Divine Life. Rather, Sacrifice, as Divine Act, is the Ascension of the Whole Burnt Offering back to the Origin, the Well of Life. … the peace forged between heaven and earth, comes to its fulfillment in the Rising Smoke, the Offering that is Savor, a Fragrance, the Heavenly Ascension.”8

God sends fire with a purpose, and that purpose is not toward Godself, at least not at first, but descending, even condescending, to us humans. This fire is given freely, in contrast to Prometheus’s stolen flame. But the fire is never mine to possess. I might constrain it, and catch part of it, but I can never fully control it. This is one of the implications of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Life is spent and the vapor9 ascends to heaven, forging an eventual peace.

A candle, properly lit and positioned, generates its proper direction if you just leave it alone. The flame-warmed air rises and forms a cup that holds the fire in place. It may flicker, but it stays together, so long as a gust of wind or a puff of air doesn’t put it out. Some things take care of themselves—and so I should step back, when it’s safe to do so, and let my students do something wrong if they’ll see their small mistakes and fix them.

As a professor, I have many—possibly too many—choices to make every day about how I structure my time and set priorities. Each assignment and lab exercise has a cost to balance. Once when I told a colleague that I was taking on a new service role, he congratulated me and then asked, “And what good thing will you be giving up to make room for this new good thing?”

The British chemist John Dalton knew about these choices. Even after resigning from a faculty position for the sake of research, he chose to continue to tutor. “According to legend, a visiting French scientist once traveled to Manchester to meet the famous Dalton. He had difficulty in finding him, finally locating him in a small house in an obscure street. He then had to wait while Dalton finished teaching a lesson in mathematics to a small boy.”10 Dalton chose the child over the colleague.

Each act is a choice of some sort, and sometimes I choose wrong and get burned. Sometimes I choose right and get burned! The ordered structure of a flame reminds me that these choices are all ultimately in God’s hands. I may choose where I direct my energies and how my time is structured, which tasks in my day are candles that should be lit or extinguished. Or, those choices may be taken from me.

The stress of burnout is a sign that I’m mishandling the flame, as fundamental as the pain felt by a hand on a hot stove. I’m holding on to something too tight. As Paul Brand wrote, even this pain can be a gift if it’s given as a warning. Or sometimes the pain may be a cross to bear. God knows.

How do I know which choices to make, and how? An answer might be found by looking even more closely at the structure of a flame. I find there a hint of how the life of the professor “teaching with fire” should be rightly structured. I’ll explain in Part 2. If you see a candle flame between now and then, take a close look and consider what kind of hint its structure might hold.

Footnotes

  1. Carpenter, Tom. Twitter post. January 25, 2022, 12:21AM. https://twitter.com/tcarpenter216/status/1485890571189161984 Used with permission.
  2. Beck, Richard. “Pascal’s Pensées: Week 39, The World is Filled With Fire and Light,” Experimental Theology, posted December 17, 2021. http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2021/12/pascals-pensees-week-39-world-is-filled.html
  3. Technically for fat catabolism, not carbohydrate.
  4. This image was made by the Bethany Community Church design team for their Christmas series, “Becoming Human,” including the artist Abigail Platter, Worship and Arts Associate. Used with permission.
  5. Hebrews 12:29
  6. Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology, Volume 2: The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity: Processions and Persons (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2020), 434.
  7. Sonderegger, 412-413.
  8. Sonderegger, 465.
  9. Or as the author of Ecclesiastes calls it, the “smoke” or “vanity.”
  10. Peter E. Childs, “John Dalton,” Chemistry Explained, accessed February 11, 2022. http://www.chemistryexplained.com/Co-Di/Dalton-John.html

Ben McFarland

Ben McFarland, Professor of Biochemistry, Seattle Pacific University.