Into the Desert Writing

Last week, I wrote a half-assed thought on what I was going to do for Lent. It really was half-assed so I wanted to expand and provide a little context.

I am a PhD student studying the endlessly fascinating topic of Religion in International Relations, and I am a religious person. It occurred to me sometime last week that I had a dis-integration going on in myself in regards to my work as an student/apprentice academic and my spiritual life. Honestly, my spiritual life has been a little on the dry side since I started my PhD and I think I’ve figured out that this dis-integration is why. If you don’t mind, I’d like to write it out and think it through…

Most people would undoubtable agree with the idea that there should be some detachment between the subject being studied and the person doing the study, that is, no matter what people are studying, be it microbes in cheese or remote Amazon tribes or the Foreign Policy of a nation-state, it should be assessed with as little emotion and bias as possible from the researcher.

This is a great idea in theory, and indeed possible to do with stuff like triple blinded studies. However, this expectation from the sciences when applied to the humanities leaves us in a bit of a bind. When you’re studying human behaviour and society, things get a bit more complicated that aren’t neatly explained by a biological mechanism and nor can the researcher who is human, eliminate his or her human-ness from such a study.

I’m actually going to leave aside that larger point for another (much better thought out) discussion. What I’m going to highlight is that the drive to remove ourselves from what we are studying, is that it is all too easy to lose sight of the reason we study this stuff in the first place. When you’re nose is to the proverbial grindstone of dense reading, data-crunching, referencing, drafting and redrafting, it takes a toll and becomes downright painful if it becomes apparent (through the fire of the academic processes described above) that research and writing is not your ultimate calling.

This, I think is why I’ve been having a spiritually dry start to the year, and it is bleeding into my life as a researcher, making writing a painfully inconsistent process. By trying to be unbiased I’ve confused it with being disenchanted and losing sight of the bigger picture that my project inhabits. I’ve forgotten that my research project has a bigger purpose than scoring me a book deal, or an academic job. It is my gift for the betterment of humanity and my gift to God, the fruit of the talents that he has given me. And the most profoundly beautiful gifts are born of sacrifice.

This idea of integrating my Lenten sacrifices into my work as an academic, is one that I can’t completely take credit for. This spiritual desolation I have been experiencing, so appropriate for this time of year, is an invitation from Jesus. It’s an invitation to learn to re-integrate my life as a Catholic with my life as a PhD student. To learn to consciously offer these struggles up for the gift that will come from them as a small token in honour of the Ultimate Gift that is the Cross that is ahead.

For those who have been wondering about ‘the numbers’, I have deliberately decided not to keep score, lest my perfectionism derail me. I’ve been less successful on the consistency of my Lenten commitment, but I’m not giving up and I’m doing a heck of a lot better of not beating myself up when it turns out that (oh what a surprise!) I’m not perfect. Thank you for following along. I don’t know if any other Post-Grad Students/Professional Writers have had experiences like this, when you feel like you’re in a desert and generating good writing is painfully slow to non-existent because you feel like the muses have deserted you. If you like, feel free to share it and have an inspired moment of solidarity across the internet. If not, that’s okay too. I hope reading this gives you a sense that you’re not crazy or completely alone.

Or you can tell me to quit whining about first-world problems… I don’t mind either way!
Until next time!

Photo Credit: Andrew Shiva / Wikipedia, via Wikimedia Commons

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