In 3 days, I graduate from my doctoral program.
I’ll receive my diploma, walk across the stage, shake hands with the school president, and return to my seat.
My wife will take pictures, I’ll laugh and share knowing glances and sighs of relief with my fellow graduates, and then we’ll drive back home.
Back to life as we know it. Back to the same wake, pray, work, rest rhythm.
But something will have changed.
A rite of passage will have been completed.
I will have changed.
My dissertation coach, after my colloquium presentation on my research this past Monday, said words in front of my professors and peers that hit deep.
“Dan, I know you went through some real difficulties during your program.”
He touched it. That place inside me.
The emotion rose in my throat. I felt seen, and a little out of control at the same time.
These 4 years were a long, tumultuous rite of passage for me.
He named it.
Merriam-Webster defines a rite of passage as “a ritual, event, or experience that marks or constitutes a major milestone or change in a person’s life.”
Can one have a 4 year ritual, event, or experience—one through which we pass and barely recognize the self we have come to know on the other side?
Yes. Definitely. One can.
All the memories of the passage I’d just come through came flooding back.
The year of 2019, when I wondered if I was about to become a full-time caregiver for my wife.
The year of 2020, and how my mental and emotional health dipped far below the survival line twice that year. Almost dying alone in an emergency room from heart trouble. The shoulder surgery and excruciating recovery over 12 months. The hernia surgery. The wicked insomnia. The daily fear that I would never get my life back as I knew it (I was right—as all velveteen rabbits know).
There was recovery. There were the years of retraining my brain, daily performing exercises to reset my psychological circuitry to get back to a normal way of thinking and feeling. There was holding down my job and starting a new job and doing good work. There was the writing of papers and reading of endless books. There was the long lingering in one book of the Bible and writing two books of prayers that came from a deeper soul place than I had ever been before (writing that became a great solace to me, as it was for the psalmists).
Then, my kids cheering me on. Telling me they were proud of me! My wife supporting me, loving me, holding fast to me, at times carrying me (and tolerating me), through it all.
Saying to me, in my worst moments, “Stay with this. You’ll be glad you did.”
Stay with the program. Stay with the study. Stay with the brain retraining. Stay with the worship and the trust and the belief and the hope and the God Who Stays With Me.
And my friends. Always a light to me. Always an encouragement. Near or far, always, I know, thinking well of me and for me and often talking to God about me.
My wife was right. I’m glad I stayed with it.
And part of that “it” was this doctoral work.
I’ve wanted to finish a doctorate for about 20 years now.
It used to be a distant dream to both start it, and finish it.
In 3 days, I will.
In 3 days, I’ll walk across the unseen line of a long-project completed, a long-obedience fulfilled.
I won’t be completely different, but I will have crossed a major rubicon in my life. There will be no turning back. I will have aged, and invested that time and currency of energy given to me by God.
And I will be different. Maybe not noticeably different, but different.
I will be a beloved child of God who completed something hard.
“Hey, kids—you can do hard things.”
I’ve said that to my children for decades. You can trust Jesus. You can ask forgiveness. You can try and try again.
And when I receive that hood and that handshake this weekend, I’ll believe that of myself.
“Hey, Dan—you can do hard things. You can even come to the point of giving up, over and over and over again—and not give up. You can do hard things, Dan. Even impossible things. You were sure it was impossible for you to go on. So many times. You did anyway. You didn’t give up. You can do hard things. You can encourage other people to do hard things because you did. You didn’t think you could. But you did. God helped you do it, but you did it. You really did it.”
And when I receive my degree, we’ll celebrate.
But it’s not only the long rites of passage that beg for celebration.
When a day goes better than the one before, celebrate.
When you accomplish a task you weren’t able to yesterday, celebrate.
When you finish a long program that you felt God invited you to do, celebrate.
When you don’t give up in your hard and sickening and tired and unable to go on, celebrate.
If we don’t celebrate all along the way, we’ll miss the gift of appreciation of what has been accomplished.
And if we lose that, we lose our sense of progress.
And if we lose our sense of progress—things can get very dark, very fast.
So we celebrate every little bit of it, progress, even if we have to go into the mine of our souls to find it and chip away at it and extract it from the walls.
Celebrate, to remember you are Beloved.
Celebrate, to remember that life is more than the hard things.
Celebrate, to remember that you have value, that you are treasured, that life is a gift and so are the people in it.
Celebrate, to remember that people love you, appreciate you, and sleep better because you are in the world.
And if you pass through something, and are different because of it, celebrate.
Every small win takes us closer to glory, closer to the day we will laugh and embrace and run and play and see the One our heart longs for face to face.
Every little “did better than I did before” is to be marked with thanks and a small feast or two.
Throw a micro-party for yourself for getting the laundry done without complaining. Why not? You need a good reason not to. A really good reason.
Sure, be sparing with celebrations that cost a bunch of money. Save money for the bigger, longer wins.
But be ye not sparing with celebrations that remind you that life is not cyclical or a trap—you are making progress and you are headed to fullness of Joy, even when you feel like you’re going backward.
While I would love to take a long summer’s nap when this weekend is over, unfortunately, I won’t be able to.
Life continues, work continues, and faithfulness to love and serve those around me in Jesus’ name continues.
But I will take a nap of a shorter sort.
I’m thinking Sunday.
After I call my Dad. I’m glad he’s alive to see this. My graduation makes him happy.
But back to the nap. Sunday will hold a good, long nap. Preferably with full sunshine falling on me through the window. I like to nap in the sun like a turtle on a rock.
Then, this rite of passage will pass into memory.
But I’ll be a different man.
I did a hard thing, and passed through to a new knowledge of God, myself, and others. And I’ll be a man who celebrated a hard thing done.
May my kids say of their father one day, “He celebrated everything. He saw it for what it was—a gift and an opportunity to grow.”
That’s the next dream.
In 3 days, I graduate from my doctoral program.
Feel free to celebrate, at a distance, with me.
Goodness knows, I’ll be the first to open a bottle, eat some cake, and raise my glass to heaven with a smile and a high and mighty word of thanks.
And thank you for joining me on this rite of passage along the way.
Every time I’ve written, I’ve been glad I did.
Thank you, Jesus, for being my Guide, and giving me the strength to do hard things.
Thank you, Jesus, for being the Guide of my sister and brother, and giving them the strength to do hard things today.
And all God’s people said, “Amen.”