As a first-year doctoral student, I’ve had a few slip-ups. I recognize that to succeed in the path I’m on—becoming a scholar—I have to push myself and be pushed. This compulsion to be excellent creates pressure. Some of which is probably unreasonable pressure, me being too hard on myself.
And no matter how much (admittedly) unfair pressure I put on myself to be perfect/awesome/successful, I’m going to make mistakes along the way. Mistakes are inevitable. Being able to both take them seriously and lightly is important to me—seriously considering what can be learned from them, while laughing at myself where appropriate. I’m good at making jokes, responses seems to indicate. I mean, my responses. I laugh at my jokes, so therefore I’m good at making jokes. That was a joke. Sort of.
But I’m also “good” at taking myself too seriously, which can cause myself (and others) unneeded stress. So I’m kind of relieved that my most recent and current favorite doctoral “goof” was an amusing mistake, the kind that makes me cringe, but then laugh… as opposed to cringe, followed by weeping in my closet with a bottle of red wine.
I recently received my grade and professor’s commentary on a paper I submitted in December. The grade and review were solid; nothing to complain about. And, as is customary and invaluable, I received some critique/pushback/suggestions to help me continue to improve as a student and scholar.
My paper was about Thomas Merton, a Catholic (Trappist) monk and writer known for his insights on spirituality and contemplation, his social activism, his poetry, and—the focus of my paper—his interest in comparative spirituality, especially dialogue between Christianity and Eastern religions like Taoism and, most notably, Zen Buddhism. Merton was a genuine student of the East, eager to receive spiritual wisdom and have his own Christian faith enhanced and deepened by the encounter with the religious "other." He is an exemplar, a fabulous guide for how to "do" this kind of dialogue well.
Many know of Merton’s life and work, but not as many know of his death. Actually, there are some conspiracy theories surrounding his death, the mainstream explanation being commonly held in suspicion.
Merton eventually went to Asia and traveled about, seeking dialogue with the monks of these other traditions. He had spoken at an interfaith conference in Thailand, exhorting monks toward spiritual renewal: “I believe that our renewal consists precisely in deepening this understanding and this grasp of that which is most real. And I believe that by openness to…these great Asian traditions, we stand a wonderful chance of learning more about the potentiality of our own traditions, because they have gone from the natural point of view, so much deeper into this than we have.” (from The Asian Journal, 342)
Later that night, it is reported, he was electrocuted by an electric fan while stepping out of his bathtub.
That’s the commonly-held view at least, though as I said, other theories abound. Now, one could insensitively make an awful pun here about Merton’s shocking death. His shocking death. Though one would certainly not want to make such a pun in an academic, doctoral-level paper. That would be ridiculous.
I have since decided it would have been worse to have intentionally made such a pun. So, that’s something. At least I can claim lack of intentionality due to not poor but obviously not exquisite editing, something which, should I seek to publish my paper (or some form of it), would certainly be caught by an editor. You don’t always catch your own mistakes, right? I was genuinely shocked by the manner in which he died! So I used the adjective “shocking” without thinking that I could have said surprising, disturbing, horrific, ghastly, stupefying (or even no adjective to let the awful reality of the situation speak for itself without help from me) and been simultaneously more creative and less offensive.
But intentionally making this pun…that seems like it would have been more problematic. I’d have some serious concerns about me if I were that professor. Graciously giving me the benefit of the doubt, he assumed it to be accidental. I don’t know if he laughed or just groaned. I haven’t talked to him yet. I hope he laughed.
Since I’ve started the doctoral program at the GTU, I’ve made a few mistakes. I’ve been unaware of an impending deadline and had to scramble. I've formatted documents wrongly. I've been inarticulate and incoherent in verbally making a point in class. I've pronounced “papacy” like “tap” rather than “tape." I've lost objectivity in a paper when making an argument because I’ve predetermined how I want the results to come out and so done injustice to significant historical figures. All bad or silly things to grow and learn from.
And now a new one to add to the list, a new lesson learned: make sure you avoid puns in scholarly work. Puns are a bad idea. Had this pun not been in the conclusion of my paper (thank God!), I might have lost my professor at the outset of his read, losing any chance of having my paper taken seriously. Maybe not. But lesson learned. Don’t make puns in papers.
But, it’s pretty funny, right? Merton’s “shocking death”? I mean, it’s not funny that he died that way, just that I chose to…(trails off with unintelligible mumbling)…