I've had a rotten week. I don't really want to talk about it, except to say that you know it's bad when almost every friend you see takes one look and asks what's wrong. Or when you wonder if you're going to be stuck in this rut forever, when all you want to do is finish.
It was that kind of week.
Today I was in the library, searching for Newt Gingrich's dissertation (more on why later) and a bunch of other books The Advisor thinks are relevant, and I passed by the shelves of doctoral dissertations by past grad students. I attend a major research university, and there are a lot of theses on the shelves. A lot. You look at all of them, shelf after shelf, bound in red and green and blue, and you wonder: do I have what it takes? Will my book ever sit on these shelves, being ignored by tens of thousands of future students?
Earning a PhD is hard. It takes 6-7 years of your life. It means spending hour after hour, day after day, year after year, just you, alone with your thoughts. It means entering what Eliot called "the intolerable wrestle / With words and meanings" to figure out how to say what you mean to say, if you're lucky enough to figure out what you mean to say at all. Sometimes it means learning a new language or three, spending years of your life digging through dusty archives, or going to live on the other side of the world, all in the name of figuring something out.
It's hard. Most people don't make it. The ones who do get there because they work hard, and because they believe. You have to believe. You have to believe that what you're doing is worthwhile. You have to believe that it will be a means to an end. You have to believe that you are, in some miniscule way, contributing to the academy's great search for truth, meaning, and significance. You have to believe that what you write and teach and share will have some impact on the way the world turns. You have to believe that it's what you're meant to do.
I have been working on a PhD for five years now. I've been in graduate school for seven. I was thinking the other day about all the things I've been through to get here. I've endured months on end in the Congo, detention at a border post, bribery attempts, more marriage proposals from strangers than I can count, a mob attack, an earthquake, a tornado, and a refusal to renew a visa, with seven days to get out of the country. I've seen suffering the extent of which is beyond my capacity to put into words. I've seen the absolute worst things that human beings can do to one another. I've given up a liveable paycheck, home ownership, and a relationship. I've read hundreds of books on subjects so dry and obscure I can't believe someone spent time researching them. I've sat through 25 graduate seminars, only about half of which were worthwhile, and I've produced hundreds, maybe thousands, of pages of summary, interpretation, and analysis. I've taught, graded papers for, and/or advised more than 1,000 undergraduates, and listened to every conceivable excuse as to why a paper is late or why you missed the final exam. I've explained what the map of Africa looks like to a blind student, and I have watched a student who was also a friend face her death with dignity and grace.
In weeks like this, I'm not convinced that it's worth it. But here is what I know: I have a wonderful family that loves me. I have great friends who won't let me sit home alone when things are bad. I have a story about the Congo that is worth telling. I know that it's still possible that maybe, one day, one of those books on the shelf will be mine. Above all else, I believe that this is what I'm meant to do.