The Dreaded Syllabus

I’m supposed to be working on my syllabus for the courses I’m teaching next semester.  I have to meet with the head of the department tomorrow to go over what I have written.

Instead, I’ve been eating oreo balls at an alarming rate, vacuuming the house, and making shrinky dinks with Anna, interspersed with moments of opening up Microsoft Word, staring worriedly at my half-written syllabus, and biting my fingernails.

It is not my most productive strategy, but I can’t help it.  Syllabi absolutely terrify me.

They always have.  I remember when I was in college and would be so excited about starting a class (yes, I’m a nerd).  On the first day, students would file in, and a cheerful teacher would do something moderately fun to break the ice, and everything would seem so nice and welcoming…and then, it would happen.  The professor would hand out THE SYLLABUS.  Pages and pages of rules and guidelines and…oh…a list of everything you were expected to do for the whole semester.  Every single time, I would look at the list of papers I was expected to write and completely freak out.  Every. single. time.

It didn’t help that syllabi are totally free of grace.  They are the most graceless documents outside of mortgage agreements and insurance policies.  Syllabi are all about penalties and loss of letter grades and unexcused absences and rules for paper spacing.  There’s no, “Just do your best,” or “You can handle this” inferred in a syllabus.  Instead, I tended to interpret the following message: “This class is obviously too demanding for you and probably completely over your head, and you would do best to go on and drop it.  Stop wasting my time.”  And I would agree with the syllabus’ unspoken words.  I would think, “There is no way I can write all these papers and read all these books and do all these journals and take all these tests and learn all of that stuff!”   I kid you not, in at least 50% of my classes at college, I spent the first day seriously pondering walking out and dropping the class because I thought it was just too hard.  (You are probably reading all this and thinking, “And they want you to come back and teach??”  Ha!  I know.  I am just as surprised as you are!)

Here’s the thing, though.  I never dropped a class.  Never.  And I never failed one.  In fact, I always did pretty well.  I always found out that I could write all those papers, and I could read all those books, and I could do all those journals, and I could take all of those tests and learn all of that stuff.  It’s just that when you see it all at once like that, when you see up front what’s expected of you, it tends to be overwhelming.

I thank God in heaven that He did not give me the syllabus for my life.

I haven’t even had that bad of a life.  I’ve had a pretty great one, actually, but if I saw a syllabus-like list of all the demands that would be made of me, even in the midst of the blessings, it would be overwhelming.  If I had seen all at once that I would have a miscarriage, my brother would die, and my husband would lose his job all in the span of a relatively few years, well, I can guarantee you that I would have been on the floor rocking back and forth in a fetal position.  And even when you don’t consider the traumatic stuff, if I saw on a sheet of paper how many loads of laundry I was going to have to do and how many diapers I was going to have to change and how many times I was going to have to vomit in my life…well, no thank you.  I would take one look at the list of demands on that paper and say, “There is no way I can do this!”

Thinking about the syllabus for a life, I realized the grace that God showers on us by making us live out our days one moment at a time. He probably knows that giving us the whole picture would lead to a panic attack that would make my inward, first-day-of-class freak outs seem mild by comparison.  Instead, He unspools our lives for us, one beautiful/difficult/joyous/tragic minute followed by another.  And He experiences those moments alongside us, carrying us through the hard ones, rejoicing with us over the happy ones.

One of the great ironies of my life is that I tend to spurn this moment-by-moment existence, yearning instead for the big picture.  In those times of waiting, of uncertainty, of confusion, I beg and plead with God to please, please just show me what’s around the bend.  I pray to Him to relieve me of this time-bound existence, of this insufferable ignorance of the future.  I ask Him to please not make me walk this path in darkness, with only the light to see the very next step.

But then I think about the syllabus, and I realize that instead of complaining, I should be thanking God for the mercy of minutes, of hours and days.  I should be thanking Him for meting our life out to us in little spoonfuls of time, letting us savor each second of our existence before it fades into our future.  I should be thankful to Him for hiding from us what’s around the bend, to spare us from dread of the tragic and over-anticipation of the happy.

One day, when God’s kingdom comes fully, we shall be free from the constraints of time.  Until then, I have to keep reminding myself that time is a gift, and ignorance of the future a blessing.  They are both given to us by a God who knows what we can handle and who wants to be there each step of the way to tell us that yes, with Him, we can do this thing.

And now, I have a syllabus to write…

(Just kidding!  I finished it before I finished this post.  I do have some sense of priorities!)

What about you?  Do you think having a syllabus for life would be helpful, or would you freak out like me?

8 responses to this post.

  1. I’d freak out. Your post does a great job helping us understand God’s wisdom in Matthew 6:34 – “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” Nicely done, Kim.

    And I like this C.S. Lewis quote about time – “Where, except in the present, can the eternal be met?” God’s given us the present. We might as well take advantage of it!



    • Tim, I have to remind myself of Matt. 6:34 regularly. It is a particularly comforting verse to me, and you’re right–it definitely shows God’s wisdom!

      I love the C.S. Lewis quote, too! I don’t know why it takes such discipline to fully live in the present, but it is definitely worth it when we do!


  2. Posted by Lisa Imlay on December 15, 2011 at 5:12 pm

    God’s syllabus for us is His grace.


  3. i just finally got a chance to sit in the silence with coffee in hand this morn and read this post….and haha, i believe that He wanted me to wait and read this today because all last night i lost it and whined and complained to larry about why things weren’t happening fast enough, why were we still having to deal with all this, why can’t He just move us along and get us to the easier stuff, why were so many good people having to suffer again and again as they keep trying to do His will, why can’t we have ONE CLEAR PATH (sound familiar?), why why why, whine whine whine. thank you, Lord, for using your servant Kim to discipline us for your kingdom. no more whining on my part. time to enjoy and savor each moment, no matter what it’s like, and be joyful in the Lord. love u!


    • Love you, too, Ann! I wish we could go out for coffee and talk through all that together. I hope everything gets better for you!

      PS. Just this morning, I read through my prayer journal and came upon a very fervent version of my “one clear path” prayer back in July. I had to laugh…


  4. oh, and btw, i dreaded syllabi, too. had exactly the same thoughts as you. i always felt overwhelmed once i had them all that i would NEVER be able to remember what-was-due-for-whom and in-what-way and that i’d end up turning in the wrong stuff to the wrong class!


  5. I absolutely love this article and actually laughed out loud (not like most people who type LOL) when I read the line : “I thank God in heaven that he did not give me the syllabus for my life.” I felt like I was reading my own mind in this article. Thanks for the encouragement.


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