Graduate school is a number of things. It’s rewarding. It’s challenging. It’s where you meet some of the best people you’ll ever know. It’s where you’ll encounter ideas that invigorate, just as surely as ideas that make you cringe. It’s the culmination of what preceded it, and where you chart your course for what’s to come. It’s where you find mentors that double as colleagues, and colleagues that double as mentors, and some that triple as friends.
But graduate school, perhaps above all else, is not for the faint of heart. Because if there is one thing graduate education demands of a person, it’s passion.
Passion for study. Passion for outreach. Passion for one’s work and its components, for the future of one’s field, for innovation and ingenuity and the ineffable, immeasurable, “unknowable more.”
And that passion is sometimes thin on the ground. Maybe you came to Divinity School filled with energy that flared out too quickly. Maybe exhaustion, and courses, and work hours have sapped your joie de vivre. Perhaps you came to graduate school to study theology straight out of undergrad, bright-eyed and unaware of the fact that, despite your best intentions, you were more burnt-out than you realized, and while your devotion to the work was as strong as ever, your passion had been misplaced somewhere along the way.
The reality of burn-out is something that I think we all face at one point or another. A paper that’s not coming together quite right. A thesis we no longer care all that much about defending. A language that’s just not clicking, that one vocab term that you can’t seem to memorize despite staring for hours. An answer that you’ve sought for months and still cannot begin to find. The challenge, therefore, is not figuring out how to avoid feeling just a little too stretched (‘butter scraped over too much bread,’ as a wise Hobbit once said), but instead, of figuring out how to recapture our passion when it’s lagged, and how to make something of the lulls themselves in the larger context of our work.
Luckily for us at HDS, we have brilliant, compassionate scholars helping to guide us toward the answers to such questions. I don’t think there’s a single student of Stephanie Paulsell’s that doesn’t count themselves lucky, privileged, and genuinely blessed for the opportunity of studying with her, and in this year’s Convocation Address, Professor Paulsell tackled the very issue of passion, and what it means to the work we do not only as theologians, but as explorers of “the mysteries of our shared humanity,” the “unknowable more” that is born of devotion and is necessary to the work that we do as scholars, ministers, and members of a global community that begs dedication, that demands meaningful engagement.
That requires passion.
Professor Paulsell, in her address, notes that the best scholarship is marked by “profound knowledge that comes with devoted study” alongside “humility that acknowledges the limits of our knowing.” I have to wonder whether the times when we’re burnt-out, are when the passion’s all but lost; I have to wonder if those are the times when we foster that necessary humility. I don’t think we’d struggle through those times if we’d lost our devotion. And if devotion, as Dr. Paulsell suggests, is a “deliberate cultivation of reverence for both the spoken and the unspoken,” then devotion includes the times when we feel our passion has escaped our grasps, when there is nothing to speak or to know.
I likewise think that when we encounter barriers to our progress, we always confront limits to our knowing, whether they are temporary or otherwise. Those limits, however, teach us valuable lessons not only of acknowledgement, acceptance, and appreciation for the mystery at the heart of much theological study, but they also entice us to work in new ways, to forge new paths, to find novel inroads and seek solutions that have yet to be tried in the effort to create something new, to assemble “the shivering fragments of what we study into new wholes that open new perspectives, cast new light, allow us to draw a little closer to what is just out of our reach, both in others and in ourselves.”
At HDS, we live and learn within a community of both passion and compassion, and the resources of friendship and scholarly camaraderie are immense when passion proves scarce. But as Professor Paulsell reminds us, the journeys of passion that we’re all undertaking are parts of “a permanent quest”—the ups and downs are inevitable, and maybe they’re not just inconveniences, or roadblocks on the way.
Maybe they’re reminders that for all the insights we arrive at, the progress we make, the papers we write and the presentations we give—maybe they’re reminders that for all the speaking we do, the journey is nothing if not for the moments of silence, too.