A weary walk

A guest post by George Parsons

To do a PhD is to experience a unique form of chronic suffering. Thus, a description of the subtle downward drag of depression (to which working on a PhD, especially in the final stages, with its elements of exertion, isolation, uncertainty and anxiety, all over a long period, seems often to lead) resonates with me as I battle on with my thesis: ‘Depression says, “Surrender.” The message is relentless, and many comply, because even when you know that there is a purpose to your suffering, the battle seems too long.’

I concur: in doing an unfunded, part-time PhD in Music there have many periods when I have wanted to give it all up (‘just be done with a MPhil’), many troughs balancing out few peaks. And yet as I reflect on six years of work – and still counting – I realize that I haven’t given up. I wonder why. What keeps me going?

Part of the answer lies in the knowledge that the hardship is part and parcel of the thing, and thus will make the satisfaction once it is completed all the sweeter. To paraphrase CS Lewis in Shadowlands: ‘The pain now is part of the happiness then’. On the other hand, and less honourably, it is surely my pride that also keeps me from giving up, the need to prove to myself that I can finish. In this way, the structure of the PhD experience is similar to that of other long-distance endeavours in the sporting world – long distance walks, Marathon races, mountain climbs. And so I have sought to learn from that arena. In the past couple of years I have walked Wainwright’s Coast to Coast path and run both half-marathons and full marathons, in part to teach myself that ‘if I can complete that, then I can surely complete my PhD’. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other, reading one more paper, typing one more sentence. So it is pride, yes (for surely no PhD student sets out to fail), but also the knowledge now gleaned several times in the outdoors that finishing such a venture is possible, even inevitable. ‘Don’t give up,’ I tell myself, ‘you will get there’.

This is all very negative, though perhaps realistic. Thankfully in my case it is not the whole story. For it is also the research itself that keeps me going. The quest for knowledge, and the concomitant fascination and curiosity with my little field of investigation has its way of irresistibly pulling me forward; in that way the research contains within itself the seeds of its own completion. My job is just to keep at it. This is the way with learning anything deeply; the paradox of study is that the more you learn, the less you know – for the more you realize there is still to discover. Research is thus humbling by its very nature; it creates a vacuum of curiosity, a void whose nagging cry to be filled propels you onward in the task.

Yet this is still all too generic. For the unique frame for any Christian’s research is their faith. As one seeking to be a Christian scholar, my bottom line is this: the motivation that drew me to start my research in the first place sustains me still – namely, the opportunity to discover more of God’s beauty in my subject. For me that involves trying to grasp large-scale musical structures in the music of James MacMillan. A project in musical analysis, yes, but also a chance to witness something more of Christ’s beauty and order that is surely reflected in all academic disciplines in different ways; for me it is enough to discern His glory in music more and more deeply. God’s beauty thus reveals itself as both the goal of research as well as the element that redeems its trials. In these ways research leads on to worship.

Jonathan Edwards, a good theologian for weary PhD students, says it best. His theological understanding of created beauty excites me, and makes me put off giving in to that little voice urging surrender for one more day: ‘For as God is infinitely the greatest Being, so he is allowed to be infinitely the most beautiful and excellent: and all the beauty to be found throughout the whole creation, is but the reflection of the diffused beams of that Being who hath an infinite fullness of brightness and glory.’

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1. Welch, Edward T. (2004): Depression: A Stubborn Darkness (Winston-Salem: Punch Press), p. 91.
2. Jonathan Edwards (1765), ‘A Dissertation Concerning the Nature of True Virtue’ in Hickman, Edward (ed.) The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume 1 (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust), p. 125.

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