In the Shadow

I successfully passed my Ph. D. defense about three months ago, on June 3, 2013. Though a rather momentous occasion and a cause for celebration, I did not feel compelled to write a post about it, partly because there was just so many things going on, but also partly because I just wanted to be done. The Ph. D. wasn’t over at that point, and so having only an incomplete view of what the degree entailed, I did not want to write.

It is a widely accepted fact that nothing in research goes the way it’s supposed to, and perhaps nothing in academia compares to the infamous variability of the Ph. D. graduation date in that regard. The truth is that my Ph. D. is still not over. Almost three months have passed. The deadline for thesis submission is in two and a half days. Even now, there is no guarantee that it will be finished on time. One of my readers completely forgot about my thesis, and is now on vacation, unable to read it or sign it before the submission deadline. With two days left, and numerous revisions to make, albeit minor, I must find an additional reader, incorporate last-minute suggestions, fill in missing parts, and polish my thesis. I am so close to the finish line, and yet I have seldom felt lower in spirits.

I just came back from a conference in Japan a few days ago. Right before the trip, I spent a couple of days scrambling to move out of my apartment because my housing contract had ended. Sleeping very little those two days, I successfully cleaned up after myself and moved all of my belongings into my friend’s apartment with about 10 minutes to spare before the shuttle’s scheduled arrival. But I was refreshed. It felt like the beginning of freedom. I had hoped to come back renewed and ready to conquer my thesis. Unfortunately, that freedom lasted only as long as the trip. Beleaguered by jetlag now, I concentrate on writing in the quiet of the night.

It is like many quiet nights before. I dreaded its arrival for what it entailed: close friends unreachable, the passage of time unstoppable, the deadline unwavering, and the list of things to do interminable. But most of all, that gaping hole in the heart, that longing for company, for care, for unconditional love1—unfulfillable (or at least seems to be so)2. It is one of those nights where I want to cry, but cannot let my tears flow because I cannot see what they would accomplish. Who else can carry my burdens for me? Pity solves no problem. It is my responsibility to persevere and finish3.

Perhaps most dreadful is that, unlike past quiet nights, this night is a week long—literally, even, since I am still operating somewhat on Japan-time. In this darkness, I feel cut off from the world of the living, with the memories of the past week offering just a glimmer of happiness, enough to have me longing for better days, but then I find that they only accentuate the desperation of my situation. I feel constant anxiety in the back of my mind, which from time to time surfaces and crescendoes into despair. The weight of the responsibility. The fear of unfulfilled expectations, both from others and from myself. Besieged by loneliness and distress, I find David’s words in Psalm 25:16-18 notably relatable:

16 Turn to me and be gracious to me,
    for I am lonely and afflicted.
17 The troubles of my heart are enlarged;
    bring me out of my distresses.
18 Consider my affliction and my trouble,
    and forgive all my sins.

I realize that it’s not the end of the world. The threats David faced were objectively speaking many times more distressing than my own circumstance. But the human mind has a way of normalizing experiences, and at this moment, failure to finish this quarter is seemingly just as bad. It would dash my hopes of moving on with my life, over five years of which I have dedicated to this degree. I wish I could end on a happier note, with some encouragement to myself, or a refreshed spirit, or a transformed outlook. Writing this down has helped somewhat. But right now, I’m still in the shadow waiting for green pastures, waiting with David as he writes, “Turn to me and be gracious to me.”

1 I’m not necessarily talking about romance.

2 I recognize that God ought to fill our hearts and fulfill our deepest longings, but that does not dismiss our visceral reactions to circumstance, or else David would not have written so many psalms…

3 I’m not talking about salvation here. I do recognize the sovereignty of God, but in no way does it diminish our responsibility to the works we are called.