Any honest PhD candidate will tell you that our work can be isolating. Even though a great deal of our work involves interaction (teaching, office hours, comparing notes with colleagues, attending lectures, and sometimes venting with other students about how we never have enough time), the majority of our work requires great stretches of time spent alone. As I prepared for my historical and conceptual field exams this year, I often found myself sitting alone at my dining room table.
Or alone in my office.
Or alone in the library.
After several weeks of this, I began to think of Harry Potter every time I sat down to work: “I’ll be in my bedroom, making no noise and pretending I’m not there.”
Staring at my notes, I knew I had written those words and I had stressed over those sentences, but I began to feel lost in the jargon and rhetoric. I found the spaces between words, the absence and the lack of signification, more representative of myself than my actual thoughts.
I feel strongly about my work. I wouldn’t be able to study, teach, or write if I didn’t feel strongly about it. Nevertheless, it doesn’t always allow for community. Before I can talk to my professor about the changes I need to make to my prospectus or ask a friend to read over a few paragraphs for me, I have to sit by myself and write. I have to be alone.
The chance to sit and think, to park myself and ponder isn’t a privilege I take lightly. Still, when you’re sitting alone, you become very self-focused. You can hear the outside world bustling around you, but sometimes you have to ignore it. The deadline beckons. Consequently, you begin to wonder, ‘what am I doing, why am I doing this, and who am I doing this for?’
It becomes incredibly difficult to unwind your work from yourself. It becomes a challenge to see where the work ends and your life begins. It becomes a trial to separate yourself from the ideas you’ve been turning around in your head for years. Not seeing your work as inextricably tied to your self worth becomes nearly impossible when it’s been you, a room, and a computer for days on end.
And that isn’t necessarily healthy.
We’re created for communion. It’s not good for man or woman to be alone.
My cousin and I share emails back and forth occasionally to talk about every day life, politics, marriage, foolishness we find on Facebook, and whatever else crosses our minds. During one of these exchanges, she asked about my work. When I explained my dissertation project to her, she told me I should check out what scripture had to say on the matter. To her, it may have been a small suggestion, but it reminded me of something that is incredibly easy to forget: writing is an act of conversation and conversion. Writing adapts intangible thought into speech. Writing produces change in the reader. Scripture is God’s way of communicating with us. Through writing, God sought to convey a message to us.
Yes, readers have to infer tone, inflection, and emphasis from any sentence they read, but when writers write, they write to speak, to talk, to tell, and to say.
When we write, we communicate. We are in communion with others.
If I can readjust my vision, if I can look past the computer and see the outside world, then I should be able to answer my own questions.
What am I doing? Having a conversation.
Why am I doing this? You have something you want to say.
Who am I doing this for? Whatever I do, I will work at it with my whole being, for the Lord and not for men.
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