I wrote a masters thesis. And along the way, there were some hiccups. Okay, there were a lot of hiccups.
Like when the hard drive on my 18-month-old beloved Macbook crashed, erasing 3 months of work. (Yes, I know about back-ups. Yes, even the online ones and the free ones.)
Or when I read an article by an expert in my field who claimed very decisively that the theorist I was applying to my research area absolutely did not apply.
Or when I missed the first deadline for my final draft. And when I missed the second deadline. And when I missed the third…
Or when I spent my first Christmas without my family hunkered down in the campus computer lab formatting footnotes, dreaming of fireplaces and hot cocoa and snowflakes.
Writing a thesis was hard. It was harder than I thought it was going to be. A lot harder. I loved my ideas and the theorists I was using. I respected my accomplished, supportive committee members. And I adored my generous friends who read and re-read my work, helping me proofread and organize my ideas. But it was still really hard, and there were times when I doubted I would even be able to finish.
When my computer crashed and I lost all the notes I’d taken during the summer, a wise and inspiring friend told me a great story. She was a ceramics major in college, and she labored for months on the final project for her thesis. On the way to the kiln to bake her sculpture — the VERY last step! — another student accidentally knocked it over and broke it. Her whole project was gone, just days before it was due. I told her that story was a whole lot more heart-wrenching than mine, especially since you can’t back up a ceramics sculpture. But she said that if she hadn’t lost that first project, she never would have made the sculpture that ended up being her final thesis.
Sometimes catastrophe breaks open the way to brilliance. And sometimes our deepest inspiration is drawn out by our greatest challenges.
I have to say, of all the pep talks my friends and family gave me during my thesis research, that story from my friend was the one that stuck with me the most. I did finish my paper. I did turn it in (two hours before my flight left on December 26 to fly home for my brother’s wedding). And I did pass my oral defense. And it was probably better for all the hiccups along the way.
The wonderful poet and author Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in one of his Letters to a Young Poet:
Perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us at once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.
I thought about that idea today when I opened up my thesis to make the final revisions before it gets printed and bound. What a dragon this project was for me — fire-breathing, sharp-clawed, and deadly. But in the end, I am reminded that the most painful challenges in my life are opportunities for me to show up with gentle courage. Now that I have conquered this particular dragon, it no longer looks so fierce.
I can only hope I remember this feeling when I come face-to-face with the next dragon.