|Col de Mollendruz, June 2013|
Four years ago, I joined the PhD programme in a mixed state of boredom interfused with a feeling that I could do anything, marching in with a prayer on my lips — not so much a prayer, but more like a haughty demand to the almighty: I demand the right to be stupid! If what scientists do is exploring the unknown, then what greater raison d'être do we have other than our ignorance? Confront us with what we do not know, and let us charge right through it! And my Rabbouni answered my prayers (or acceded to my tantrums) all through four years. This is his still ongoing story.
Ignorance is in abundance, and there is no question about it. One of the first thing that would strike one freshly entering a community of scientists is how ill-equipped everyone is for tackling the frontiers of human knowledge. At least, it seemed to be the case coming from the undergraduate days, where questions have answers and those same answers could be unearthed in a week by a brilliant enough person. Every answer to a research question, by its very necessity, a stab in the darkness, an oppressive darkness where one could no longer reliably tell between right from wrong, rigour from quackery, or gravitas from frivolity. I did not know much, and the supervisors, with all the experience to bring them where they are now, are only just slightly further ahead, engulfed by the same ignorance, pawing about blindly, just as we are, for a glimpse of the same certitude of truth that existed in memories of bright school days long gone.
It is at the precipice overlooking this snarling void where my supervisor perched me, and let me plunge — or shoved me right into it; it was hard to tell.
With the darkness came failure — persistent, repeated, soul-crushing failure, fatigue and the laughable blunders that it brings, are the demons who walk with us and torment us in our waking hours. I lost sight of any chance of easy victory. If I had fantasies of becoming a trailblazer of scientific progress, I cast them behind me. Failure! Failed attempts became so frequent and numerous that any victory, however small, came to be met with a mute surprise rather than jubilation. Yes, I throw up my hands in excitement whenever things go according to plan! But then I have to weep and repent, because I am again reminded of the weight of my sins, of all the time I have wasted in my failures.
My self-worth was no longer bolstered by achievements, because such events seemed too much like providence, and so I accepted them as such. Defeat is my natural condition, while victory is foisted upon me most undeservedly.
A salient feature of this part of my faith journey is how secular the environment was and how much of my Rabbouni's message was handed down to me by my colleagues, most of whom were non-believers. A collaborator wrote this as part of his email signature: "The role of the scientist is to produce as many bad ideas as possible". Soon after, another colleague whom I have come to admire lived out this role, during our discussions, rattling out all sorts of outlandish ideas at me for me to try for a study. The volume of it was overwhelming, and the bulk of it was bullshit. But it was such apparent frivolity that betrayed a certain nimbleness of mind and a sense of adventure — he was sailing in the darkness, slicing huge gashes into it, not merely prodding at it timidly. Looking at what he does, I realise that despite my conceited demands for ignorance, I was not yet ready to embrace it. I was still a proud man who refused to bend down and lash his nose to the plough, rather than the small Therèse who accepted the littleness of her spirit and could therefore embrace the world in all its oversized and overwhelming ineffability.
No miracle of the sun marked the reconciliation between work-life and prayer-life. The two halves circled the arena like fighting cockerels in a pen, breaking out at times in spectacular bouts of combat... and then, imperceptibly, work took on the intensity of prayer, and prayer took on the rigours of work. My Rabbouni guides me wordlessly, holding me up by the arms like I was a child taking my first steps. He tuts, he hums absently, he says nothing in words. I take a step, I take two; I discover a new corner in the room, and then a new corner again, each new place a paradise of wondrous delights, ever a pleasant surprise.