The writing life takes concentration. I’ve often thought of sitting down to write my dissertation as a game — watching my brother play tennis for years taught me that much of the game is in your head. Of course, you need skills like serving, backhands, and volleys, as well as the right equipment like your racket and shoes. But if your opponent “gets in your head,” you’ve lost. One time, I watched my brother lose to a player objectively worse than him because he was psyched out by aggressive volleys and confident swaggers. My brother’s coach walked by and shook his head, “He’s playing not to lose — he has to play to win.” The coach’s words have stuck with me as I write my dissertation.
Now, during this pandemic, I find this truer than ever. In the game of dissertation writing, the opponent to my concentration is distraction. Distraction has a number of aggressive, fancy shots, and many of them hit tender places that rightfully merit my concern: the scary statistics in the news, the worries for my loved ones over 65, the uncertainties in higher education, the anxiety over possible germs on a simple container of yogurt. They jostle each other in my mind when I sit down to write.
Distraction’s volleys are so powerful at the moment because they draw my attention to the people and things of ultimate value: the lives of those I love near and far, the life of teaching and learning, the life of the world. These volleys also draw my attention to the uncertainty of things I need — like finishing this dissertation. Truth be told, these things do merit my attention — but my loving attention. They ask for my presence, not my distraction from the task at hand. For in the end, distracted thoughts cheat both my dissertation and the people and concerns that rightly merit my attention of my full presence.
When the volleys fly at my face, my tendency is to play not to lose. Sometimes even to question if I’m playing the right game — should I have gone into healthcare instead of biblical studies? Should I be in the hospital trenches too? In this state, I show up to my dissertation with a “don’t lose” attitude — “don’t waste this time,” “don’t mess up this argument,” “don’t give up.”
But I’m playing to win.
When I’m fully present I remember the value of research and writing. Every word rightly placed, every paragraph well structured, every argument set forth with clarity and charity, every footnote ordered to the standards of Chicago-style is a little victory against disorder and chaos. Now, in a pandemic, even more. The words, paragraphs, arguments, and footnotes done well display the human attempt to know, to understand, and to speak truth, even when the world around us crumbles.
So, I keep playing the game — I show up to write, fighting the unruly sentences and tracking down the sources for the footnote. I take a walk to refocus and pray. I make a healthy meal.
Importantly, I’m not playing to win this game alone — in the best of times and even now in these difficult ones, I have cheers of encouragement from friends and family and the comfort of the Holy Spirit who whispers gently amidst the noise of it all, “You are my beloved child — and so are the ones you love.” May my words, paragraphs, arguments, and footnotes be little witnesses to the faithfulness of God, redeeming the time.