A couple years ago, I was really into running. I still go for a jog or two every now and then (with a few months in between jogs), but back then I was running nearly every day. Sometimes it was only a mile or two. Other times it was three or four miles. Once, to train for a 10k (6.2 miles), I ran a little over nine miles. I know these distances may not be very far for some, but for an asthmatic like myself, they were oftentimes torturous.
If it was such torture, then why did I do it? Why did I push myself through something as boring and miserable as running seems? For one thing, I needed the exercise (still do). For another, although the process wreaked havoc on my lungs, I enjoyed the “runner’s high” afterward (the extra boost of endorphins after a good workout). And after my recent Hebrew class, I had a similar feeling once I got home.
In the first semester of Hebrew, it was all about learning the grammar. For the second semester, it’s all about translating. There’s no final exam; mostly small assignments and displaying an efficient ability to read the language. And as I am quickly finding out, translating Hebrew is a lot like going for a long run for the first time: I’m exercising brain muscles I didn’t even know I had.
Such a feeling, though, isn’t applicable only to translating languages. I had that feeling again on Tuesday when I finished a fair amount of critical reading for my “Paul and the Law” class. Reading biblical scholarship is a style I’m still getting used to. I can’t let my mind check out for a paragraph or two and jump back in without really missing much. If I’m seeking to understand the scholar, I have to read more slowly and carefully lest I miss something important. Yet reading in this way, at least for me, requires a lot more mental energy. Like with Hebrew, I’m working brain muscles I didn’t know were there.
None of this is intended to suggest that seminary is too much work. One must take only as much as one can bear, but I believe I have a reasonably-sized workload this semester that’ll push me beyond the limits I thought I had. Again, I think of an example from my running experiences.
In 2012, Eugene hosted the Olympic Trials. There were a couple days in the middle of the trials when no athletes were competing. So, to keep people interested in the event, a local track club held an all-comers meet with several different running events. I chose to give it a whirl just for fun and signed up for the “jogger’s” mile. We were asked to write our expected time on our name tags so they could group us together with more efficiency. Not feeling like any record breaker, I put 6:45/mile. When it came time to run the event, I chose to run with the 6:15/mile group to see if I might get pulled to a faster pace. Sure enough, I ran the mile in 5:50, tying my high school best. So much for it being a “jogger’s” mile.
My point here is that seminary is becoming wonderfully exhausting. I don’t always get the “runner’s high” after every assignment or reading binge, but I get it enough to know that this is something I truly enjoy – this process of being pushed and pulled to a faster pace of studying and learning. I’m not sure if I’ll feel this way come the final weeks of this semester with my two 10-12 page research papers coming due, but for now, it’s a feeling I’m trying to harness and utilize to get through each assignment. Sometimes, in order to test our true abilities, we need to be pushed beyond what we thought we could handle. We need to be pulled to a faster pace.
With all that said, I think this raises an important issue for many seminarians: How much is too much? It also involves asking ourselves a tough question: Is this difficult challenge a healthy one or is it legitimately burning us out? If the latter, what are all the factors contributing to the “burn out” feeling? Too much ministry involvement? Poor time management? (I’m guilty of that one, but I think God is a Doctor Who fan, so I think He understands.) What’s your experience when it comes to the workload of seminary, your PhD work, or your everyday life?
As a doctoral student I am learning my boundaries and limitations. Most days I begin early, end late, but often times catch myself drifting, freezing up, or suddenly on Facebook. I think these are small signs of mental exhaustion. My brain is too full. I need to learn when to press hard and when to stop, i.e., time management!
The thing that interest me about your analogy is that I’ve found that when I do little to no physical activity is negatively impacts my ability to think clear. When I go for a nice walk, or do something else that gets the blood flowing, I am able to concentrate better once I begin working. As students we’re often tempted not to exercise at all so that we can give more time to our studies. I’m not so sure that this is a good idea. I know that studies have been done on how exercise helps the body, clears the mind, and so forth. So, from my experience, students should use both the muscles in their legs and their brain as students. A holistic experience is healthier.
It becomes “too much” when you can’t synthesize data you are taking in, or when you don’t have the mental space to think creatively–which is essential for good writing.
But sometimes you may just have to live with data overload. One’s experience in grad school will vary wildly–it depends on what kind of person you are, whether you are working or not, what kind of program you are in, and how fast you are trying to get through it. For some, grad school is a downright mystical experience; for others, it is a painful slog. . . . even though it is not ideal, you may need to look at grad school as stuffing your head now in order to reflect later.
But I’ll definitely support Brian’s comment–a regular intense exercise routine does wonders for your brain in grad school! I discovered that halfway through, and my week-long headaches stopped.
For me, it was finding that balance. But it was difficult, especially for someone who craves top grades.
@Brian: I completely agree; exercise oftentimes does free up the mind a bit to function more smoothly. And I, too, catch myself doing similar things; Netflix binges or taking a “short” break to play a couple games on my iPad or simply perusing my Twitter feed. Having a stronger sense of self-control would go a long way, I think 🙂
@Michael: You’re exactly right; if your brain stops taking in data, then it’s probably time to take a break. I like how you use the word “synthesize,” though; it’s not about taking in data as much as it is about processing that data and working it with other data.
@TC: I crave the top grade as well, so it is difficult to walk away for a bit thinking that time would be better used by studying or working on research.
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