Academic Exchange Quarterly Fall 2002: Volume 6, Issue 3

Teaching Mindfully
To cite, use print source rather than this on-line versions.

Heroism and Tragedy, Healing and Bereavement in the Student-Teacher Relationship 

“You do not know this monster and that is the reason you are not afraid. I who know 
him am terrified.”[1]

At the end of spring semester 2002, one of my students died after a long battle with 
cancer. I met Sylvia during my second year of full-time teaching, and after the 
first class session, she explained that she might miss class occasionally due to 
chemotherapy treatments but that she didn’t want other students to know because she 
didn’t wish to be treated differently.  My husband had undergone a bone marrow 
transplant for a relapse of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma just two years before and was 
just beginning to recover fully after many complications.  The problem of suffering 
was a primary subject of this introductory theology course, so between our shared 
experiences and the course material, Sylvia and I had several occasions to dialogue 
about her health, its impact on her husband and son, and her own and other’s 
spiritual reactions to it.  She faced her health, her treatments, and her faith 
journey with courage, what seemed to be unfailing confidence, and some frustration 
at continually being confronted with others’ lack of equal spiritual maturity. 
(Some fellow students and church-goers had suggested that God must’ve given her 
cancer as punishment for some hidden sin.)  At her memorial service on campus, every
professor who spoke shared that their teaching relationship with her had included 
at least as much mutual learning and collegiality than mentoring. 
  
Teaching relationships often seem to overlap with some journey of tragedy or healing 
in the life of the student, and sometimes end in bereavement.  How do we partner 
with students and colleagues as they encounter tragedy, work through healing, and 
survive bereavement, especially as we ourselves are affected by these same human 
conditions?  The relationship between the oldest known tragic hero of world 
literature and his dearest friend suggests a model. The late third- to early 
second-millennium BCE Assyrian  Epic of Gilgamesh is the story of a historical 
third-millennium Mesopotamian king.  “When the gods created Gilgamesh, they gave 
him a perfect body.” [2]   Though described as two-thirds god and one-third human, 
spiritual and social maturity didn’t counterbalance Gilgamesh’s physical perfection.  
He became arrogant and restless, so the gods created a wild man, Enkidu, to be his 
equal and companion.  The tragedy seems to begin even before they meet, when Enkidu 
is civilized by wisdom (a woman), a transformation which leads him to weep and sigh, 
“I am oppressed by idleness.” [3]  This lesson seems to provide a useful warning to 
both students and teachers: Though learning leads to tragic self-awareness and 
suffering, once that learning process begins, idleness (or neglect of learning) 
will only create more suffering.

When the two companions prepare to battle evil, chaos, and the unknown, Gilgamesh’s 
beautiful and wise mother Queen Ninsun counsels Enkidu and her son with authority: 
“Do not trust too much in your own strength, be watchful…The good guide who knows 
the way guards his friend.” [4]  On the eve of the battle, Enkidu becomes anxious. 
“Keep beside me and your weakness will pass,” Gilgamesh reassures him. “When two 
go together each will protect himself and shield his companion.” [5]   Ninsun and 
Gilgamesh’s advice can be applied to mutuality in the teaching relationship, from 
the journey of learning and discovery itself to those occasions when real-life 
tragedies must be confronted.

“You do not know this monster and that is the reason you are not afraid. I who know 
him am terrified,” Enkidu warns the confident Gilgamesh, who responds:  
	Give me your aid and you shall have mine: what then can go amiss with us two?… 
	We shall go forward and fix our eyes on this monster. If your heart is fearful, 
	throw away fear; if there is terror in it, throw away terror. Take your axe in 
	your hand and attack.  He who leaves the fight unfinished is not at peace. [6]

While teachers are ultimately responsible for taking such an encouraging mentoring 
role in the student-teacher relationship, sometimes, due to experience, the teacher 
is more wary than the student.  Sometimes our role is to support the student’s own 
courage even when we struggle privately to share it.
  
Enkidu and Gilgamesh’s adventures end when Enkidu is mortally wounded, suffering 
twelve days of ever-increasing pain and sickness exacerbated by his frustration at 
being cheated of a glorious, honorable (and quick) death in battle. [7]  The tragedy 
of the epic, however, is not so much Enkidu’s dying as Gilgamesh’s survival--a fact 
recognized and mourned even by Enkidu himself.  After his friend dies, Gilgamesh is 
tormented by his grief and fear of mortality (sickness, weakness, and pain as much 
as mere finitude). 
	How can I rest? How can I be at peace? Despair is in my heart. What my brother 
	is now, that shall I be when I am dead….I have wept for him day and night, 
	I would not give up his body for burial, I thought my friend would come back 
	because of my weeping. Since he went, my life is nothing. [8]

He decides to confront the gods with questions about life and death with a 
determination that prefigures existentialist philosophy: “Although I should go in 
sorrow and in pain, with sighing and weeping, still I must go…. How can I be silent, 
how can I rest, when Enkidu whom I love is dust, and I too shall die and be laid in 
the earth.” [9]  The gods respond in kind. One goddess describes his quest as a 
despairing search for the wind, while the father god he ultimately sought merely 
observes, “From the days of old there is no permanence.” [10]

The spirituality of teaching necessarily contains some of this existentialist 
determination.  Our relationships with students lack permanence, and we have no 
control over the outcome--not even of their learning, let alone their lives, their 
health, their tragedies and bereavements.  In some ways, the job of teaching is a 
chasing after the wind.  Sometimes we are more like Gilgamesh, sometimes Enkidu, 
sometimes--we hope--even Ninsun.  Yet we go on, journeying and learning together, 
teaching each other.

Thank you, Sylvia.

[1] The Epic of Gilgamesh. N. K. Sandars. New York: Penguin, 1985, 80.
[2] Ibid., 61.
[3] Ibid., 70.
[4] Ibid., 75.
[5] Ibid., 77.
[6] Ibid., 80-81.
[7] Ibid., 93.
[8] Ibid., 98.
[9] Ibid., 99, 102.
[10] Ibid., 101, 107.

Heather Ann Ackley Bean, Ph.D.
Azusa Pacific University 

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