I just read this description of a scientist doing field research in the 1800s:
“Wallace plunged into the jungles along the Rio Negro and spent the next four years doggedly collecting specimens. The challenges he faced were numberless. Insects made his life a torment. He broke his glasses, on which he was highly dependent, during a lively encounter with a hornets’ nest, and lost a boot in some other moment of mayhem and for some time had to clomp around the jungles half shod. … After four years, he stumbled from the steamy jungles exhausted, his clothes in tatters trembling and half delirious from a recurrent fever, but with a rare collection of specimens.”
Then, as he sailed home, his ship caught fire. He sat in a lifeboat and “watched as the ship, consumed by flames, slid beneath the waves, taking his treasures with it.”
Can you imagine?
Well, I can. This is the fear of every grad student, researcher, and job applicant—that we spend years and agony trying to offer the world something, and it goes up in flames, literally or figuratively. Researchers worry that our work will become obsolete before it’s published, that publishers will find too many faults to ever publish it, or that life will get in the way and we’ll give up before we find what we’re looking for. Every time I apply for anything—sending out a query letter to an editor, applying for jobs and scholarships and fellowships, I feel a weary dread that this will go like too many applications before, like a ship carrying my hours of preparation time sliding in flames into the waves of the Atlantic Ocean.
Wallace’s story didn’t end in his lifeboat. He moved on. He sailed off to the Malay Archipelago, and spent eight years collecting “a staggering 127,000 specimens, including a thousand insects and two hundred species of birds never before recorded, all of which he managed to get safely back to England.” (Bill Bryson, At Home, 2010, p. 382-3).
Lately I’ve been reflecting on how to move on like Wallace did. In an article called “We Regret to Inform You” at The Well, I share my thoughts on how to get out of the lifeboat and back into the work God’s given. Read it here.