When I first started exploring graduate schools for doctoral work, I looked at studying in the United Kingdom. A major difference is that in the U.K., candidates research and write at the outset, arranging their own tutorial curriculum as they go. In the U.S., students often participate in classes and then begin research and writing following the completion of comprehensive exams.
Such independent work, according to one U.K. dean, is difficult for U.S. students because, in his estimation, we are not taught to think critically, a necessity for years of research often conducted in isolation.
Ha! What does he know? OK, in my case, he might have been right.
For years, I was patted on the head for my success at rote memorization and my constancy in repeating back on exams exactly what I had been taught during class. This, I was assured, was proof that I was bright.
Years later, struggling through the dissertation process at an American university, my adviser emailed me, “Where is your voice? I don’t need you to quote texts. I need you to ‘engage’ them!”
I had spent my entire life searching for certainty and then committing it to memory. I never questioned anything that a teacher told me. I taught myself to quiet my own thoughts if they contradicted what an adult said.
And then my daughter died. I cannot tell you the amount of bad theology people offered me for “comfort.” Still, I couldn’t overcome that habit of sticking to the party line, keeping my questions to myself.
My dissertation challenge came 30 years after my daughter Jeanne’s death. My voice? You want to hear my voice? Be careful what you ask for.
And, through this new freedom, I began to engage the texts. I resurrected all the questions, rage, confusion, logic and illogic from my daughter’s death, and focused all that energy on the texts. I cannot claim that my finished project rocked the world of Semitic Philology. But, I can tell you this: My oral defense was fearsome.
This past week, I was deeply moved to know that more than 300 students gathered at Johnson High School for a candlelight vigil in memory of 10th-grader Xander Corso. I thought that this is what it looks like when a community chooses to engage the “text” which, in this case, is the reality of an inexplicable mystery.
I think that the young people at our high schools in Hall County are learning to think critically. And, I believe this capacity enables them to engage things they don’t understand. And that being able to be fully present in the face of something they cannot grasp actually allows them to participate in a ritual of observance that honors the memory of a remarkable classmate while at the same time holding open the space for learning more later. Or even considering the possibility of never understanding at all, perhaps the most vulnerable posture for any human.
I also believe that this capacity enables these young people to develop compassion and empathy. It is much easier to connect to someone else’s pain when our own is so palpable, leaving it accessible to our conscious minds, because it remains an open wound.
There is clearly an aspect to “truth” that includes the element of certainty. But I am persuaded that truth includes so much more. It has to. Because God is truth, there has to be an aspect of truth that remains ineffable, the servant of our questioning, our rage, our suspicion, our confusion and our hope. And that, because of this engagement, we become more compassionate and empathetic, a clearer witness to the love of God.
The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Park is the associate rector at Grace Episcopal Church in Gainesville. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.