Thursday, November 04, 2010

pressure point

Today, I am reading a wonderful book called Minding the Spirit which is filled with articles by scholars from the field of Christian Spirituality. However, I am not having a wonderful time while doing it. Instead, I find myself suffering from fatigue of the spirit and the mind and the body. I would just like to go sit by the window and read some fiction for a day or two. Or maybe go for a long walk without thinking about my next research project the whole time. The pressure that has been piling itself on top of me these past few weeks, scoop after heavy scoop, is finally starting to dent my usually cheerful and buoyant demeanour. I thrive in a learning environment, but the love and drive for what I am doing has taken a few hits lately, and that makes studying quite a chore. I find myself tempted to walk away, at least for a bit. I won't, but I am tempted.

There is the constant pressure to be the brightest and the best, to do well not only in the classroom, but to fill one's resume with publications, presentations, student committees, awards, scholarships, and language and training courses. While you are doing that, a few research trips to exotic locations are always a good idea, and of course, you must make sure that all the important people know who you are so that you can get good letters of reference. I don't play the academic game very well, in fact, if I am on the game board at all, I think my game piece might be a stale Cheezie that I picked up off the floor.

In the midst of all this overwhelming pressure and subsequent woefulness, a quote jumped out of one of the articles I was reading this afternoon and brought a spark of hope and life to my spirit. It is from one of the all-time great novels of the 20th century (so I am told by numerous reviewers, so now I think I have to get it, though when I will be able to read 880 pages of fiction is beyond me!).

Here is the quote with which Barbara Newman begins her article, "The Mozartian Moment":

In a memorable scene from Mark Helprin's novel, "A Soldier of the Great War," the protagonist Alessandro learns that he has just failed his orals and will not receive his degree [Matte's comment: this is my worst nightmare!]. His examiners explain that they failed him for being insufficiently clever, but Alessandro replies, "I was clever when I was a child. I could do all kinds of tricks; I could memorize, analyze, and argue until my opponents were paralyzed, but whenever I did these things I felt shame." This remark makes the professors furious: "Shame? For what?" they ask. It does not help our hero's academic career when he responds, "It was easy to be clever, but hard to look into the face of God, who is found not so much by cleverness as by stillness." [1]

Thank you, Alessandro, for saying that, even though it likely set you back a few moves in the game. This is what I want to make sure that I never lose sight of. Cleverness will come and go. On days like today, it mostly goes, but let me always focus on the harder task: to look for the face of God in order that I might see him and describe him to others. If I do this, instead of dragging myself to the task of studying, I will not be able to keep the joy and wonder out of my voice.

[1] Mark Helprin, A Soldier of the Great War. New York: Avon, 1991, 428-429.

This is a photo that captures the joy and wonder on my face when one of my friends ran up to me and gave me an unexpected hug. I could use more moments like that, couldn't you? Photo credit: Natasha Cherry.

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