I’ve gained so much from going to graduate school that I feel guilty saying this, but I’ve lost something precious along the way.
My first therapist told me she thought my struggles felt like my being “refined.” This was just post-90s, and contemporary Christian ballads like “Refiner’s Fire” were still making the rounds. So, I thought, “nice. Refinement sounds relaxing.”
But she went on to explain that far from just pulling pure and precious metal from ore, the process would also lead to losing “good stuff too.” There was always gold, she said, mixed in with the slag they dumped. “You’re going to lose good stuff,” she said. And I hated her for saying that because I was just beginning to understand this to be true.
My first stop at Regent College was an exercise in getting up to speed, especially with philosophy, languages, and history– the stuff that my classmates from Christian university undergrads seemingly “pshawed” as though these were beneath them. Then, when my feet started to find a comfortable rhythm in step with others, classes in theology and exegesis awakened my capacity for critical thinking. Not an easy thing for a former Science major who had spent years memorizing hundreds of bits of information and diagrams to regurgitate them back at professors for my “A.” By the end of my Masters of Divinity, I had finally learned to write a decent essay
My second stop at the Fuller Graduate School of Psychology was another kind of baptism. It wasn’t terribly academically challenging (though early classes in ANOVA and exhausting myself with SPSS made me wonder if I was cut out for this at all), but there were a number of demands that successfully navigating that program required that weren’t on the website. They didn’t tell us that when we really got going, we’d be juggling coursework, our advisor’s research, our own research, clinical practica, preparing to apply for another clinical practicum, trying to get extra clinical hours, activities of daily living, and relationships (if you had any by the end of it.) It often made me feel not so much crushed, but more like I was being drawn and quartered by competing demands.
But the thing I lost and still have a hard time finding is my old friend, my writing. When I was young, writing was the activity that I compared to Eric Liddell’s oft-used quote of feeling “God’s pleasure” when he ran. I would write, as Liddell would run, like a wild animal, spending hours putting words together for the simple joy of the way they sounded. I wanted to be a writer when I grew up, and put to use my joy for the enduring delight of all.
I can feel it now as I struggle my way through this little versicle. I keep veering between writing unapproachable academic prose for the purpose of proving a point or lapsing into the neural pathways made quick by thousands of hours of writing clinical notes. Both have seemingly scrambled me to the point that I struggle to put words together that don’t start with “client reported…”
It takes far more energy for me to write than I used to. My head is crowded with cares. My life is very good and I am the happiest I have ever been, but there is a side to me that no one knows or really cares about. It is too much, of course, to expect that my family also be my fans. Everything I have heard and experienced of that kind of dynamic tells me that it’s actually rather poisonous to hope that they would bow down to my brilliance. I live with the temptation to seem stupendous. And when I palpate my way around that urge, I know it sits on the falsehood that I be loved and cherished all the deeper by those who love me were I to be permanently bereft of all compositional ability. I am enough of a therapist to be able to laugh at that, but not without a twinge of grief for the self I’d hoped I would become.
I catch myself feeling jealous of the writers I do read. I marvel at their incisive wit. I chew on their turns of phrase. I sigh over the image I have of them, wind in their flowing hair as fingers blur over keyboards. “God,” I think. “It must be nice to be so talented.” And then I turn back to the contemplation of another joyless clinical note.
I still fantasize about being able to write for a living someday. I have ideas for books, but I’m not sure I can get past a prologue. And as I age, I’m not sure I’ll ever have the time or opportunity again. The old joy was given willingly for new joys in my wife and children and work, with the faustian bargain of the latter being that clinical notes are not meant to be good reading. (Though, when I’m tired, I catch myself writing clinical notes in such a way that I often wonder, should they be subpoenaed, would a lawyer find them an interesting read?)
But sometimes, like an old friend come to call, I hear my writing call to me. When it does, I remember quiet hours alone, typing away at something, the world’s breath idling through cedar boughs, and gladness at the work of beauty.