Six Years

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6 years is a long time.

In 6 years, a newborn becomes a first grader.

In 6 years, Jupiter travels halfway around the sun.

In 6 years, World War II began and ended.

And after 6 years, I am still a graduate student.

Yes, technically, I realize that I am currently in my 6th year, which means that it’s been 5 years and some change since I started my PhD. But while 6 years have not passed since I took my first seminar, I still am technically a “sixth year.” Which means that I have been in graduate school for a very long time.

I usually make light of it, though, and try to poke some fun at my situation. For instance, when strangers, after learning that I am a graduate student, innocently ask what kind of degree I’m pursuing, I reply, “It’s either a PhD or a really long Master’s.” I’ve also started copying my best friend and fellow sixth year Elizabeth. When people as about her dissertation defense date, she responds, “I’d rather tell you how much I weigh.” Our old age in graduate-school years has made us both a bit snarky.

I’ve found other “productive” ways to cope with my perpetual studenthood. Together with Elizabeth, who also happens to be my roommate, I finished the entire Parks and Recreation series. In a moment of creativity, I purchased and repainted some patio furniture. And, perhaps most importantly, I have adopted a guinea pig. Isn’t she adorable??

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Meet Latte! Isn’t she the cutest?! 🙂

Grad school isn’t easy, though. And despite my healthy coping strategies—guinea pigs really are the best therapy pets—this journey often becomes exhausting. I guess this makes sense; after all, I’ve been working on this degree for more than half a decade. My friends who started their Master’s programs with me in 2012 have been gainfully employed for at least three years now. Some of my other friends have worked multiple jobs since finishing college. Still others have gotten married and had their second kid. Yet here I am, still a student. I realize that getting a doctorate is a job in itself, but I can’t help feeling like I’m caught in an extended form of adulthood-limbo. And sometimes I find myself wondering whether pursuing my PhD was the right thing to do. Whether all the hours—YEARS—pouring over books, traveling to archives, and staring at a computer screen will eventually be worth it.

On my good days, when I find an interesting source, when I run into a former student, or when I receive positive feedback on my work, my answer is yes. In those moments, it’s easy to believe that this journey, with all its ups and downs, has been and will be worthwhile. I try to hold onto those days when they happen, and to recall these “small victories” even after they’ve passed. But in reality, those “good” days don’t happen very often. They can be rather few and far between, and their memory fades much more quickly than I’d like. The majority of the other days aren’t “bad”, per se, but they can become rather wearisome. Almost-six years of delayed gratification can have that effect, I suppose. I am worn out. And while I’m not going to quit—I have come waaayyyy too far for that—sometimes I just want to curl up into a ball and sleep for a really, really long time. Rest is a good thing, I know; and I am doing my best to take it along the way. But at some point, I have to muster up the energy to just keep going. And sometimes that seems very hard to do.

I’m currently in Germany on a one-month research stay at an institute in Marburg. It’s been good to have a break from “normal” life for a bit, and I’ve found some information in their archive that has helped with my project. Anyway, this institute (and the guest apartment where I’m staying) happen to be on top of a mountain. This means that, when I go grocery shopping, run errands, or do anything besides hang out at the institute, I have to end by climbing back up the mountain. Last week, I decided to go for a long run along the river and through the city center. The run was beautiful, the weather was perfect, and my legs felt so happy. Until, that is, I started climbing back up the mountain. It. Was. Brutal. My lungs were heaving, my legs were twitching, and according to my Garmin watch, my heartrate was embarrassingly high. I found myself stopping every 1/10th of a mile to rest, which made for a very slow trek up the ¾-mile-high mountain. It was awful.

As I was trying to coax myself up another tenth-of-a-mile segment, the first few verses of Hebrews 12 popped into my head. This was one of my favorite passages; I used to quote this passage to myself when I ran track, so I wouldn’t give up during training runs or the merciless 800-meter races. I hadn’t thought about it in awhile, but my brain oxygen-deprived brain would take any distraction it could get. And so I started repeating it to myself: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith, who, for the joy set before Him, endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so you will not grow weary and lose heart.”

“Let us fix our eyes on Jesus… so you will not grow weary and lose heart.”

I am weary. My brain is tired. My body is tired. I am tired of working on the same project, staring at the same computer screen, thinking through the same questions and ideas. I know that graduate school is a privilege and that not many people get to do it. I understand that, and I am grateful. But I am so tired. Very, very tired. So I guess the question posed to me is this: what am I going to do with that exhaustion? Will I curl up in a ball and sleep for days on end? Will I get down and discouraged like I am often so tempted to do? Or will I do everything I can to “fix my eyes on Jesus… so I won’t grow weary and lose heart”?

I wish I could answer once and for all, but I’m finding that every day (sometimes every moment) asks me that question again. And oftentimes, all I can muster up the energy to say is, “Help me, Jesus.” I guess that counts for something.

Tonight, though, it’s time for some R&R. If only I could hold that adorable little guinea pig… 🙂

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A Pig of a Different Color

Spike's Bathtime

Sometimes you just have to stop and pet the guinea pigs.

Yes, I know the expression is usually different. And while I agree that savoring the aroma of coffee can be a pleasant experience, it pales in comparison to petting a baby guinea pig. Trust me on this one.

Tonight my family visited our local Petland and spent an hour holding baby guinea pigs. To call it “glorious” would be a tragic understatement. It was the best hour I’d had in a long time.

You see, guinea pigs have long held a very special place in my family’s heart. When I was in fifth grade, my Papa and I secretly went to PetSmart and picked out our first pig. (Don’t worry; we were smart enough to ask my mom’s permission first!). Bugsy was the most precious pig ever, despite all we put him through. For instance, during his first week with us, he constantly made a purring sound. We assumed this meant he was happy, and we congratulated ourselves for being such gifted guinea pig keepers. When he started sneezing a week later, we took him to the vet where we learned that this so-called purring actually indicated anger. Oops. Fortunately, we soon perfected the art of making Bugsy squeak, which is the real guinea-pig equivalent of purring.

Bugsy was certainly a good-natured little fella. From making him pull down a dishtowel to open his cage, to forcing him to stand up on his back legs to reach his lettuce, from seeing if he could jump off the couch, to using a ferret harness and taking him on a “walk” around the neighborhood, we made Bugsy do some ridiculous things. But he patiently endured it all, even the most emotionally-scarring experience. While some people sneak popcorn and candy into movies, we smuggled our guinea pig. We wrapped Bugsy up in a half dozen towels, stuck him in a canvas bag, and brought him to the premier of 102 Dalmatians. In retrospect, he probably didn’t appreciate all the barking dogs… and this might explain why most of the towels were soaking wet afterward. Having said all that, we loved Bugsy dearly, even if we didn’t always show it in the best ways.

After Bugsy came Spike. Dear, sweet Spike. If Bugsy was docile and well-behaved, Spike was his spunky, hyperactive opposite. Covered in cowlicks, he was a bunny-colored ball of energy. When his breakfast time rolled around each morning, he’d let you—and the whole house—know he was hungry. Shrieking as loud as his miniature lungs would allow, Spike would sprint in circles around his cage until his food arrived. And if you dared to withhold a piece of lettuce from him, he’d fight you until you relinquished it. Yet Spike was as lovable as he was tenacious, and we loved him back.

So as odd as it may sound (then again, when has my family ever been normal?), guinea pigs have played an integral role in my family. Thus, our “guinea pig withdrawal” makes complete sense. So tonight we went to Petland and held their guinea pigs. And as I petted one of the squeaking balls of fur, I couldn’t help but ask myself why we hadn’t done this before. If guinea pigs bring us so much joy, then why had we spent almost two years without them?

Time is a paradox. It simultaneously crawls and sprints. Before we know it, today becomes tomorrow… while we’re still saying goodbye to yesterday.  In the madness of the moment, we can forget. Forget why we’re here. Forget who we are. And forget Who gave us life in the first place.

When I was traveling through Ireland last March, I stumbled across an insightful quote. I took a liking to it (and took a picture of it) and have been pondering it ever since: “What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stop and stare?” Although I love this quote, I’m terrible at applying it. Instead of stopping and staring, I’m constantly moving full speed ahead. And I’m not the only one who lives this way. In our overstimulated society, downtime is under-appreciated. But that’s not how God created us to be.

You see, God wants us to work hard. He wants us to be productive and manage our time well. But He also desires us to rest. In fact, He showed us rest on the seventh day and even included it as one of the Ten Commandments when He instructs us to “Honor the Sabbath Day and keep it holy.” As counter-intuitive as it sounds, resting becomes an act of worship. And so is enjoying the world God gave us. For me, guinea pigs are living—and squeaking—proof of that.

So what do you enjoy doing? What activity, hobby, or small furry creature brings you joy? And what’s keeping you from it? I’m not condoning procrastination (I may get around to that tomorrow. Haha). On the contrary! I’m challenging you to stop procrastinating. Quit putting off your life until tomorrow, and start enjoying it today. So brew yourself a cup of coffee, take a deep breath, and go for it! Your guinea pigs are waiting. 🙂