[For the more pleasant side of this tale, see the previous post on the greatest joys on life and and study in England]
I took this pic before I knew the word “selfie.” I wanted to remember the particular moment of intense prayer and wrestling experienced on this hike. I was on the Dingle Peninsula. And though the beauty of the place is unwritable, and the opportunity to be there a tremendous privilege, on this day I was charging into fog and gloom.
Charging into fog and gloom… that phrase captures so much of the journey of the past four years.
As evident in the photo, the sun was beginning to show itself. But most of the way was a wet, dark plod into jagged hills with low visibility. That hike sums up the past four years. Sunlight is now creeping in.
But I still get chills remembering the uphill battles through fog.
Here were the toughest challenges:
- Vocational Shame
There were mornings when one of my children would clutch my arm as I was walking out the door and beg me to stay home from work (even though my children would all be heading to school moments later). It always tore at my heart.
What I wanted to say was, “Daddy has to go in to work so that I can provide for you all as my family.”
Instead, what came to mind (but remained unspoken) was, “Daddy has to go into his office to study and keep perpetuating the massive amounts of educational debt that may deprive him the opportunity to help you and your siblings attend university yourselves. So goodbye and have a good day.”
For three years I lived in a state of quasi-vocational delight that was marred, overwhelmingly at times, by a sense of vocational shame. I was accruing debt working on a doctoral thesis for the sake of a credential that offers no guarantee of gainful employment.
In doing the very thing I “felt” God had called me to, I simply felt tremendous shame.
It was soul-crushing… often.
2. Vocational Insecurity
And on those days when I did work with a sense of divine affirmation, when I tasted some freedom to enjoy the season, I was rarely free from the nagging blight that sours most doctoral students’ hearts—the blight of academic insecurity. My German, Greek, and Hebrew will never be good enough, whatever “good enough” is. My memory is simply not as retentive as others. My knowledge of New Testament scholarship will never feel adequate. My grasp of the secondary literature always falls short.
Now, Durham’s Dept of Theology never made me feel this way. I have only been affirmed. And I could not have asked for a better supervisor, Prof. Francis Watson. But this sort of inferiority complex seems to come with the academic territory.
Ghosts and demons plague every vocation. Those that come out at night (and during the day) for emerging scholars sing ghoulish songs in our ears with the refrain, “you are a fraud, you are a fraud.”
I hate that song.
3. A House Far, Far Away
Though the academic work was rigorous and challenging, probably the most trying burden of the entire duration has been a house we still own in the States. It has been a nightmare at times… and for some reason the hardest blows often came right when we were trying to take a holiday. I spare of you the ugly details.
4. Stress and Anxiety
Even when I thought I was emotionally and spiritually handling well the difficulties of this intense season, my body was often suffering an odd host of symptoms. Stress hormones have raced constantly throughout my system, and now, post-PhD, I have made regular visits to osteopaths, chiropractors, and a physical therapist trying to untangle all the knots in my muscles from the unrelenting tension, the bad posture.
There have been many costs to pay.
Had I been more faithful, more trusting, more… well, maybe more spiritually mature, I would likely have endured much less of the shame, insecurity, and physical pain described above. Instead, I lived in the liminal space of Scripture’s lament poetry, barely making the lunge toward hopefulness. The namesake of this blog has meant a lot to me in that act of lunging.
So… was it worth it? (The PhD as Pyrrhic Victory)
Was it worth it…? I am only now beginning to say “maybe, I think, probably… yeah.”
In fact, I will venture now a “yes.” I was “called” to this season.
But I have also been called (more importantly) to be trusting, to be more full of faith. Had I been truer to that calling, the other would have come easier.
Closing word: the PhD has been at times like a “Pyrrhic victory,” one in which the triumph of victory is barely outweighed, if at all, by the victory’s costs (I’ve written elsewhere on this). If you ask me advice on whether or not to take the same path, expect a grim (though still open and reflective) tone.
Fog and gloom. But now some warm rays…