[The map above is an inset in a map of “The Bishopric and Citie of Durham”—the inset shows the peninsula where I study, between the castle and cathedral.  You can find more of these at www.oldmap.co.uk]
“Don’t be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, with Annotations – 1841-1844
A friend of mine sent me that quote.  To be clear, though I certainly respect Emerson, I would not invest in him an authority by which I would live my own life.  But the timing of my friend sending me that quote seemed providential.
Looking back on this past year, I am disappointed that I was miserably squeamish throughout so much of it.  Here I am living in one of the most beautiful little cities in the United Kingdom, studying everyday within 25 yards of a 900-year old cathedral, watching my kids as they fend off corrupt knights from Sherwood Forest and resist Viking invaders, and, on top of all that, I have actually, finally, commenced in doctoral work on the New Testament—something I have been tentatively hoping in for more than a decade now, something I have sensed a divine appointment to pursue.
To boot, Durham’s Department of Theology is outstanding.  I admit bias, but Durham is fairly well recognized as the best place to study theology in the UK.  And I could not be more pleased with the learning, wisdom, perspective, and guidance of my supervisor (Prof. Francis Watson).
My squeamishness is due to the costs, of course… and not just the price tag of tuition and UK living expenses.
Along with the squeamishness, there has been a debilitating, overpowering sense of shameShame over the impracticality of moving a family overseas for an expensive doctoral program with no funding.  Shame for not drawing an income.  Shame that my wife was working so hard to help offset the debt just a bit.  She was gone 2-5 nights a week (usually 3 or 4).  That’s a really tall order for a mom with 4 kids with a full-time PhD student as a husband.  We LOVE, just love her place of employment (our church here in town) as well as the folks she works with.  But we are not at a life-stage for the sort of schedule required of a youth and children’s ministry worker.  Though our marriage is strong—the bonds of our friendship, to God’s praise, are so tough and enduring and joyful—it was hard to live a year passing each other by, sometimes literally on the streets as we met on the road here or there to exchange kids or a car or something.  It has been a maddening year in terms of scheduling.
Hence the squeamishness.  And the shame.  Strange how you can pray and pray and pray over a span of years for clarity, make some really costly decisions as an act of devotion to Christ—decisions that you would feel ashamed for NOT making—only to endure an awful season ashamed that you did make them… yet feeling simultaneously that you did the right thing.
(If any professional counselors are reading this, they may have already diagnosed me with some psychosis endemic to my personality type: ‘squeamishness disorder,’ maybe, or something like that).
I am not sure how to reconcile all this, to be honest.  Seems as though there are two people for me to be angry at and lay the blame for being so cornered on one end by a powerful sense of divine calling and on the other end an implacable obstacle providence has yet to remove.  The parties to blame seem to be either me or God.  Me for being a fool and mishearing God.  God for… well, for not doing something right.  Because something is just not right… at least according to the figures.  And so when those are the options for directing one’s disappointment and frustration, I try to default to myself.  Hence again, squeamishness and shame.
I’ve counseled so many dear folks who were at vocational crossroads wondering how to place the next foot forward.  I seem to have lived in those crossroads for quite some time now.  What I guess I am finding is that the hardest part of following the vague voice of Christ up ahead in the fog is not deciding which way to go, but being content in the path you’ve so painstakingly chosen.
My wife has left her job (and on good terms).  We are so relieved.  And I do get a small stipend for my writing on a website here in the UK devoted to increasing biblical literacy in the digital age.  Actually, I am working so many hours, mornings, days, nights, but mostly for stuff that just happens to not come with a salary (writing a second book, trying to get my mind around German and Hebrew, trying to write a thesis on Johannine ecclesiology).
Student loans are an inevitable part of academic life for most of us slogging down this path.  And there are all sorts of policies embedded in the repayment process that make them manageable.  Still, they are emotionally and spiritually indigestible for me.  Yeah, they make me squeamish.  And ashamed.
All this to say that I need to repent.  Not by leaving Durham—everything besides the funding issue has been so powerfully affirming that we are in the right place at the right time.  I need to repent of my attitude.  I think I have been practicing “faith” like one make moves in a card game.  I’ll lay this down… now God, you lay your card down.  There is a sort of cat and mouse strategy at work in the way I trust the Lord.
But you can’t play God, can you?  So I am going to try to believe in the Gospel, the Gospel I am devoted to studying and paying so dearly to do so.  Far be it from me to think that the Crucified doesn’t know what to do with my debts….
Of course, many a fool has chased some dumb dream and slapped the word “vocation” on it in Jesus’ name.  That has been my greatest fear, I think.  “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” (Prov 14:12).
Even so, I can’t live in that sort of anxiety any longer.  My constitution just won’t take it.  And it certainly doesn’t honor the Lord.  Sometimes, you drain your cup to its dregs, even if you are not sure if it is the right cup.  The Lord knows I am a blind fool, and He also knows I have begged and wept for Him to take my feeble hand in His.  As far as I can tell, the right cup is in hand.  The other  hand is on a plowshare.  And He had strong words to say something about putting one’s hand on such an implement (Lk 9:62).   So I am gripping tighter.  Tighter.
Here comes year 2.

7 thoughts on “1-Year into the PhD: 12 Months of Living Squeamishly”

  1. Thank, Andy. Good to hear this update. You know, there are some really interesting stories about people who’ve had God do great things RE: student loans…heard any good testimonials about that?

  2. Andy, I really appreciate your thoughts and honesty here – I’ve dealt with some similar thoughts while pursuing my master’s (although without the added dimension of caring for a family). These sorts of things can be fear-inducing, but the resurrection is real, and that wins every time. And I’ll add my voice to those who affirm you where you are.

  3. Thanks for sharing this. I think I want to respond with two things: my experience of doing a PhD is that it has a lot to do with dealing with guilt (guilt about not doing enough work; guilt about working too hard and neglecting the family; guilt about not ‘earning a living’; guilt about not contributing more to society; guilt about… you get the idea). I’m not sure if it is to do with the particular personality-type associated with theology PhD students, but it is clearly not productive, so I think there needs to be a simple element of acknowledging it’s there, and then saying, ‘No’ to it. My other point is to recognise that (I don’t think) anything truly worthwhile was ever easy, and therefore we should expect struggle to come in whatever form. I don’t mean to minimise the struggle in saying this, because accumulating loan statements is a scary business, but I just wonder whether, if it was all really straightforward, you would value it in the same way? Finally, and this is a bit glib, sorry, but think what a testimony you’ll have when it’s done!

  4. Rory, Jason, and Ed… thanks so much for commenting! I have really hesitated about writing these posts, sharing so personally. Part of the reason is because, as real as the frustrations are at times, I still feel quite ridiculous that I am even struggling with it. And I fear that I over-dramatize it as well. Even so, these issues are a strong aspect of my daily reality.

    I have not heard many encouraging testimonials about student loans. But I also do think that it will be worth it. Sometimes I work hard not because someone is paying me to work, but because I am paying so much to work that I sure as heck better do a good job! This post communicates that I am deeply committed to the path in spite of the fear-inducing obstacles.

    Ed, you may be right about the personality-type of us doctoral candidates. It has taken me a year to feel comfortable saying ‘No’ (I think I have treated my anxiety as a sort of noble duty one must exhibit so as not to be flippantly indebted!). And I also agree on my better days that the difficulty of it all points to eventual reward, not just eventual punishment by monthly loan dues for a dumb thing I did back in 2011-14.

    Thanks, guys. Your comments are challenging and helpful!

    1. Hi Andy, I stumbled on this blog a while back, and just wanted to say that I appreciated this post. As a graduate student in theology, I have faced some similar feelings and challenges, and I appreciated your willingness to share. Certainly shame/guilt/anxiety can have an isolating effect, and it is, in a strange way, encouraging to see that some of these struggles are shared by others who are trying to faithfully follow God’s calling.

  5. Andy,

    Your post is so incredibly timely (at least my finding it). I have been accepted to Durham’s MA, and they are currently considering me for the Integrated PhD, commencing this October 2013. These last three years during my MDiv, I have felt the same things you are stating here, although I was able to do it without incurring debt. My studies in Durham, however, will require taking out significant loans. Yes, I also feel guilty for taking on debt when we are currently debt-free. Yes, I feel terribly guilty for not “working,” at least the type of work that brings immediate income. Yes, I feel guilty for moving my wife from our comfortable home by the beach in Los Angeles to a cold and constantly overcast rural part of England. Yes, I feel guilty that she will probably need to work some in order for us to make it.

    Yet that aspect of “calling” keeps me focused. I, too, struggle constantly with whether I am simply following my own selfish ambition, stemming from a deceived heart. But just when I am about to cave into such thoughts, there seems to be somebody or something that brings encouragement once again that this path is the right one. My dad told me the other day, as I confessed difficulty in choosing between Durham or Aberdeen, that doing the right thing doesn’t mean taking the easy road. Often, the better way is the harder way.

    One encouragement I can give you is to keep turning to Jesus in prayer. I’ve come to the point now where that is truly my only solace and comfort, along with time in the Word. Hoping to make your acquaintance soon upon moving to Durham in September.


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