Postgrad perspective: Welcome to the wilderness

Rev Spanky Moore shares a spiritual journey into the wilderness especially for postgrad students.

I wonder why you decided to do postgraduate studies? I’m sure you sometimes ask yourself that. The allure is often fueled by romantic notions of dusty smelling libraries, diagram crammed black boards, and world changing breakthroughs. But the reality for many postgrad students I talk too is that their masters or doctorate study is just really, really, really lonely.

Some have compared the process and feeling to that of running a marathon; an exhausting solo pursuit, that tests one’s metal to breaking point. But since I’m the chaplain – indulge me as I use a different, more “spiritual” metaphor: The Wilderness.

From around 300 AD a constant stream of men and women started leaving the big cities, of that time, to head out into the wilderness. These were middle eastern mountainous, desert-like places – but forthe sake of the Kiwi imagination, think Central Otago alpine mountain scape. And so these “hermits” would leave all of their city life behind, take what they could carry on their backs and find a cave to live in in some far flung and inhospitable place. Which begs the question, why did they do it?

Well, a big part of it was because they wanted to escape the distractions and easy answers of the crowd, and they knew they needed the space to seek  “higher knowledge” in solitude.

Of course, like postgrad study, this notion also sounds kind of romantic. But in reality it would have been cold, boring, and really, really, really lonely.

Perhaps one of the great things these Dessert Fathers (as they are known) discovered when they arrived in the wilderness was this: “Wherever you go, there you are.”

What does that mean? Sure, you can change the place and context that you’re in, but when push comes to shove, you’re still going to be YOU wherever you go. And for most people being YOU includes a whole lot of insecurities, emotional junk, unbearable feelings, and unhelpful coping techniques – which we discover are with us wherever we go. “Where you go, there you are.”

And what the Dessert Fathers seemed to discover is that when you’re living in a city, the noise and distraction of the crowds often means you can avoid having to confront the hard parts of being YOU. But when you’re stuck in a cave, in the middle of the desert, for years on end, with no one but yourself, and no distractions… you sometimes meet a YOU that you didn’t fully realise existed deep down in their.

I suspect that many postgrad students resonate with that metaphor. We leave the “crowds” (our undergrad cohorts or our previous jobs) and head into a season where we spend great chunks of time in solitude, being with ourselves. Perhaps we decided to study postgrad because we wanted to reinvent ourselves, or to escape a job or a relationship or a past career. We have all these fantasies about what it’s going to be like. But we soon realise, that while many supervisors and friends and family can help us on our postgrad journey – the majority of it is, by necessity,  a journey we can only take alone. And in that we discover that “Where I go, there I am.” And that’s why many postgrad students experience a sort of “un-doing” as they strive to research, write up, edit, and submit their work. Like the Desert Fathers, they also discover it’s hard work being with yourself – as all your nagging insecurities and hopes and motivations – are poked and prodded, day in, and day out.

But don’t’ quit just yet! Because here’s where it gets good. Because the Desert fathers also discovered that the wilderness can be a good place! Yes – it’s hard, but I want to encourage you to use this “wilderness” period to not just grow academically, but to also grow emotionally, personally and spiritually. That discomfort you feel when you’re stuck being YOU for days on end is an invitation to face up to who you are, to “lean into” the bits that need some work, and to learn to like yourself for who you are.

Now I know that’s not an easy thing to do. And I know supervisors aren’t always easy creatures to deal with, but my prayer for you is that you’ll emerge from your time at UC with much more than a fancy thesis and a title and mild anxiety issue. But rather, that you will also have begun to “lean in” to your discomfort, to deal with your junk, and to even begin to love and accept the YOU that you’ll take with you wherever you go for the rest of your life. Because it’s the only YOU you’ll ever have.

Rev Spanky Moore

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