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One last thing.

ABD. All But Dissertation. I began this blog a week after I had defended my dissertation proposal and could finally claim those three little letters. From the front side of all those requirements—coursework, language exams, preliminary exams, proposal, and two oral defenses—they seemed like staggering obstacles. On this side of them, however, with most of my dissertation still ahead, they look like mole hills. My dissertation sometimes feels like a tall mountain the top of which I can’t see, but that I am, nonetheless, expected to climb. I mean that in both a positive and a negative sense. The cartoon below, by Dave Walker of cartoonchurch.com, communicates some of the negative sense in which I feel it:

Sometimes, when I see the mountain, writing a dissertation seems like chasing a bare outline stretching endlessly into the distance. Following that horizon feels like a meaningless endeavor, with no finish line in sight, utterly stripped of its grandeur and beauty. When I consider all the reasons I have to finish my dissertation, it feels like someone has blocked my view of the real mountain I’m climbing with a false image of line peaks, just like in the above cartoon. One peak bears the label, “no more fees.” Another has, “job eligibility,” and the next, “freedom to do whatever’s next.” The text on those peaks is just as bare and lifeless. The words represent real goals of mine, but held up as reasons to write, they prove shockingly uninspiring. They also falsely represent the real object of my pursuit at present.

I am writing on the New Testament book of Acts of the Apostles. Acts may well be the best adventure story in the whole Bible. The Holy Spirit animates this story with fire, new language, bold proclamation, miracles, healing, martyrdom, preservation amidst shipwreck, and trials before councils and kings. Reading Acts affords a vivid encounter with the Holy Spirit’s living presence on earth. What could be better? What I learn through reading Acts and writing about it excites me tremendously. I imagine Acts and my work much more truthfully when I think of a trek into the Grand Tetons rather than a flat, illusory line drawing. I imagine my work actually looks a lot more like this:

These mountains indicate the positive sense of the cartoon: writing a dissertation worth writing does resemble a mountain-climbing adventure, but the quest is not inherently and irrevocably fruitless and dull.

Another cartoon, this one from Pearls Before Swine by Stephan Pastis, illustrates how other incidentals can rob good work of its joy:

from “Pearls Before Swine,” June 1, 2008

So a dissertation is not a marriage, but both usually begin with at least some passion. And they are both for something beyond the good things that they make possible, and both require more for their meaningfulness than the daily routines and tasks that make them possible. Losing sight of writing a dissertation because one has a good topic and something important to say about it precisely names the point where the “Passionsaurus” dies. And, as in the cartoon, it dies so slowly and quietly, one hardly notices.

It’s beyond essential, so I’ve learned, to keep in view what the work is really for. One might think the labels on the cartoon peaks name the work’s purpose accurately, but such an assessment mistakes the matter. So writes Dorothy Sayers in the essay, “Why Work?”:

Dorothy Sayers

[Work] should be looked upon not as a necessary drudgery to be undergone for the purpose of making money, but as a way of life in which the nature of man should find its proper exercise and delight and so fulfill itself to the glory of God. … it should, in fact, be thought of as a creative activity undertaken for the love of the work itself; … man, made in God’s image, should make things, as God makes them, for the sake of doing well a thing that is well worth doing.

Doing well a thing well worth doing—that, and nothing less, should provide the foundational reason for writing a dissertation.

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