After the end of the tether… (dissertation blues)

End of the tether...
End of the tether…

Whilst rooting about in the attic recently on the annual Christmas decoration hunt, my Dad informed me that he’d found a bag with my Masters thesis in it! I was excited, I knew it was around somewhere but I couldn’t find it and now here it was. So Dad brought the bag down and inside, under a bundle of papers, I found my MTh manuscript, all dressed up in its (now admittedly dusty) binding.

I sat and skimmed through its pages, variously thinking, “Wow! Did I really write that? That’s clever!” and “Did I really write that? That’s rubbish! How could I think that?!” and “Did I really write something this dry??” and finally, “Maybe I should put it back up the attic!” But here it was, in my hands, tangible evidence of something I had created, a lifetime ago, a product of another time and place and another version of me. Then I closed it and sat back and remembered…

It had been a struggle to finish it (perhaps even to start it) and there were times I thought I wouldn’t finish it at all. But then I remembered the day I finally heard it had been passed by the panel who decided these things (after I had sat in an office and been grilled on its contents by three esteemed professional persons whose job it was to decide – yes or no?) and, with all its faults, it was my pride and joy. My work, with the guidance of my supervisor, overcoming the odds and here it was. It wasn’t likely to win any awards and a Nobel Prize was definitely out of reach (unless they give Nobel Prizes for not very good dissertations). But it was mine, done and, quite literally now, dusted. But I remembered the birthing process had not been easy. 

There was a moment, an event, a time, a place, when I was drowning under its weight. It was sink of swim, give up or, for better or worse, go on. It happened fifteen years ago but such was the intensity of it that I remember it very clearly even now, fifteen years later.

Way back then, at that sink or swim stage, I knelt on the floor of the lounge in my parent’s house, papers strewn around me, chaos, my mind in meltdown, my thoughts scattered by the winds of inner turmoil to the four corners of the mind’s outermost reaches. Thoughts teetering on the edge of a mental abyss. If my mind fell into that abyss, the MTh was doomed, and quite possibly so was my own sanity. 

The deadline loomed. Only a few months to complete a dissertation. A few months may seem a reasonable time scale, in terms of a major dissertation it is a terrifyingly short amount of time.

I had had to scrap what I had previously written, only a few months into the course, start again, and it had never really got going again. All I had now were scraps on papers, scattered thoughts, sections of books, sentences highlighted that must have meant something at the time but now surrendered no meaning no matter how long I stared at them. All I had were ideas with no anchorage, thoughts with no order, abstract (and fracturing) concepts with no clarity. 

Now, sitting there, fifteen years later, I remembered…the place I had been too scared to go…the mental abyss. My mind collapsed, it was too difficult, I could take no more. Defeat, failure, shame, all loomed before me as the last bear threads of the rope that my hands gripped for dear life and kept me from falling snapped under the weight of my worries.

I fell.


Falling…falling…everything stripped away…nothing to hold onto…the end. 

Then, in that moment where the mind falls fast into darkness and the blind panic ensues, one last despairing cry for the depths of my consciousness, a thought from I know not where, one last flare sent into a darkened sky from the hand of the captain of a vessel that’s already half way to the unseen darkness of the oceans floor. One last flare sent into the night sky as the hand holding it sinks beneath the deadly waves. Nothing more to cling to…just an inner voice…the last conscious thought thrown out before the abyss crushes it finally. 

There was only one thing left I could do, only one last option. One breath left, one thought to send out…

On my knees, hands pressed to the floor, I closed my eyes, I prayed to my God, I cried it silently and then I cried it out loud, “Lord, I can’t do this, I just can’t do this.”

That was it. No lengthy exegetical masterpiece of a prayer, just those few words but I meant them as I have meant few prayers in my whole life. They were prayed from a heart in despair, a heart having let go of the end of its tether, a heart feeling as though it had just slipped off the end, clutching its dying breath, stretched to the very edge of  sanity and peering into the abyss.

“Lord, I can’t do this, I just can’t do this.”

“Save me.”

…and in the silence a cry is heard in a place the physical world cannot see but is more real and beautiful that all this present material world can muster. In the silence a cry is heard and a response is made. A transaction takes place, a promise kept…”If you will call on me…I will answer you.” 

…and out of the silence, undiscerned by human eyes, the spiritual infiltrates the physical and salvation begins its work, its ultra mysterious saving work, in its own way and according to its own wisdom…a prayer is answered and a new work, silently, unseen, unheard, undetectable to human radar…but oh so real…begins… 

……there was no instant answer to prayer that I could detect, no writing on a wall telling me how to proceed, no angel appearing before me saying “Do not be afraid, God is with you, you will succeed.” I just got up, went out of the room, left it all scattered on the floor behind me, had a rest. 

Who would have thought that the answer to a despairing prayer for the salvation of a thesis would begin with…walking away from it! Come away from the scattered papers, leave the library, step back from the computer screen, put the journal down…and rest. Time was surely of the essence? Time is in my hands, came the unbidden thought. Rest. The best medicine for your chaotic mind? Come away from it. Rest. 

Later, and without a whole lot of enthusiasm, I went back, and bit by bit, slowly, inch by inch, letter by letter, word by word and thought by thought, started to see order in the chaos of my attempted dissertation. The winds of the storm which had ravished my mind began to blow ideas here and there, to move thoughts into place like scrambled pieces of a jigsaw being gently placed strategically by an ever softening breeze until sense began to form and patterns were detected. Patterns that had always been there and now my eyes were opened to them once more. 

There was no Damascus Road moment, the pen didn’t suddenly leap up of its own accord and start writing, allowing me to sit back, relax and watch while the thesis wrote itself (the world of Harry Potter hadn’t even started then!). There was just a slow but steady progress. Slow and steady and enough. There was time, time was in God’s hands. In my mind’s eye I saw the finished thesis, all 40,000 words, and slowly but surely I started the process of creating, or perhaps recreating it, writing it, bringing it into existence, bit by bit by bit until eventually I finally got there. In truth I thought the end product wasn’t great, I thought it lacked polish. But it was finished and it was there, presentable. My supervisor was happy with it and I was examined on it. It didn’t pass straight away, it got a conditional pass, conditional on a few changes being made. I didn’t think I had the strength to make those changes, didn’t think I had any gas left in the tank. But I revised small sections and it was passed.

My abiding memory is being faced with defeat, kneeling on the carpet surrounded by the mess of my notes without rhyme or reason to them. I remember praying “Lord, I can’t do this, I just can’t do this.” I remember praying, “Save me.” I remember resting. I remember the winds of the storm begin to move the pieces here and there until I saw something like order, patterns forming. I remember the waters of the sea begin to part and this child of God crawling  through to safety on the other side, knuckles scraped, knees bleeding but still reaching the other side.

Then I look back to the voices that had told me I had failed, I was useless, I didn’t have what it took to succeed, I wasn’t clever enough…all those voices drowned in the sea. I stood on the shore of the other side, closed my eyes and quietly thanked God for getting me to the finish line.

“His way is in the whirlwind and the storm…” Nahum 1:3

MTh - The Foundations of Hope (slightly ironic title in retrospect!)
MTh – The Foundations of Hope (slightly ironic title in retrospect!)



Be nice, be contrary, but don't be rude :-)

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