The deep purple oil pastel was soft and warm in my hand. It crumbled as I pressed it across the paper, upon which were words written in evaluation of me. I had chosen purple because those particular words bruised me: they were critical, and some of them were untrue. On other parts of the paper, there were words coloured over with gold: these were encouraging, affirming, and true. The purple and gold ran alongside each other. Bruises and affirmations.
Once the whole paper was coloured over, I folded it into a flower. I placed it onto a river I’d painted on some cardboard. Alongside the river I had written: ‘See, I am making all things new’.
I did this as a way of integrating and processing those words and my experience of them, and working out how to respond to them. The context and particular content of the words don’t matter for our purposes here – rather, what I am hoping to communicate is the process of my response to them. It was an act of hope and prayer: an act of resilience.
Resilience is the ability to persist and grow through change or adversity. Resilience is what allows us to keep going and stay true to who we are, even when times are tough. Resilience is something we’ve all needed and grown in through these last few years of pandemic, recovery, and other global changes and crises. It’s something that we need for all sorts of personal circumstances, and something that we need in the context of our academic work.
I am a PhD student at Clare College, Cambridge, researching Paul’s use of the ‘body of Christ’ metaphor in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12. I’m questioning how this metaphor forms identity: the identity of individual bodies in Christ, in all their diversity; and the identity of the unified corporate ‘body’ in Christ. It’s fascinating, relevant to present-day conversations, and I really am enjoying my time inhabiting this question.
Yet, as I’m sure will be familiar to many researchers, this work takes resilience.
It takes resilience in the day-to-day, at-the-desk work. Even when enjoying research there are those unsettling moments when the concepts aren’t quite coming together, or when you’re staring at a blank page for the third day running, or when you come across that article or chapter which says what you want to say (but better).
The moments that really get under my skin are the ones in which I have started writing something new – but progress is stilted and slow, because I can’t quite hear my own voice in the words that I’m stringing together. It takes resilience to keep returning to the page, and to keep stepping up to the task of reading texts and working out how to say what I want to say about them.
It takes resilience to stay committed to seeking out and trusting my own voice in this process. Sometimes I wonder if it would be easier if my voice were different – if it were more like the voices of scholars that I admire, or if it had more in common with my colleagues (I am currently the one woman PhD candidate in New Testament in my University). Sometimes I wonder if it would be easier if I were less concerned with how my research speaks to wider pastoral and ecclesiological settings, and focused instead on something that was firmly within the academic sphere.
When I encounter these moments, I always circle back through them to the conclusion that if my voice were different than it is, I wouldn’t be me – and the writing I produced wouldn’t be mine, and it wouldn’t be committed to the values that I hold. I remind myself that the question I’m asking through my research is deeply invested in seeking ways to value diverse voices, and to see how we find corporate unity through diversity. I remind myself that just as I value the voices of others, so my voice has value too.
When I remind myself of this, often by taking a long “thinking/praying walk” into the fields near where I live, I find the motivation to return to the blank page and keep listening. I keep listening for how the concepts are actually coming together; how the blank page offers itself to my imagination; how the article or chapter I found doesn’t actually say it better – it says it differently. My own voice has another perspective to offer.
All of this adds up to new resilience: a refreshed resolution to keep going and growing even when I question my voice and my work. It takes the questions, and the critiques implicit in them, and it folds them into something new. I am enabled to grow through the challenge, and to recommit to the research – both day-by-day at my desk, and as I engage with wider academic communities.
I wonder if any of this resonates. If so, I want to offer an invitation – a kind of guided imagination, based on my story at the start, to give you space to notice the moments in your research life through which you’d like to grow resilient. Give yourself five minutes to imagine with me.
Picture your own piece of paper, like the one in my story. As you imagine that piece of paper, you could fill it in with anything: descriptions of experiences in academic life; words people have written or said of or to you, both affirming and critical; words you have thought, as you’ve rewritten that chapter for the fifth time; stories you have encountered of (in)equality or (in)justice or [fill in the blank] in the academy. You can fill that piece of paper with anything that you need to process and work out. Give yourself space to recognise these things, and to feel how you feel about them.
As you imagine that paper, I wonder what colours you choose to respond to it. Are there colours of encouragement or affirmation? Colours of hopefulness and joy? Colours that represent how you feel when critiqued? Colours of anger, fear, compassion?
Once you’ve coloured your paper, imagine folding it into something new. I folded mine into a flower and placed it on a river. For me this is a helpful metaphor: like a seed buried and breaking open to put down roots, I could take the words written on my paper, and the experiences connected to them, and break them open to new life.
Hannah is a 2nd-year PhD candidate (in New Testament/Paul) at Clare College, Cambridge, where she is also the Decani Scholar (which means she practically supports the life and ministry of Clare College Chapel). When she’s not at Chapel or in the library, you can find her on a long walk through the Cambridgeshire fields, crafting or cooking great food with friends, or planning her next travel adventure!