I've been thinking lately about burn out versus burn through. Maybe you can help me sort this out some more. It seems I might be burning out after working 15 years of direct patient care in a hospital setting. I worry that I sometimes care less, am tired more, lose my patience and am something like sad on Sunday evenings. I wonder am I happy? Am I fulfilled? Am I doing what God wants with this life? Am I just stuck? Too scared to do something else?
Then another part of me mumbles and sometimes shouts: snap out of it, get over yourself, this "am I happy?" question is the luxurious question of the well and the comfortable. Could this "happy question" be an idol at worst and a lousy form of entertainment at best? Maybe a life well-lived is not free from exhaustion, but one filled with good and loving work - work that frees one "to lose one's self" for the sake of another. Could the refiner's fire be a slow burn? Maybe being burned through is the whole point?
What do you think Dear Theo?
I once worked at a Christian summer camp. It was the most fun I've ever had except when it sucked. It was hard physical labor, as hard as I've ever done in my life before or since, but what was harder was the internecine warfare, the gossip, the disparity between different people's work ethics and abilities, the heartache. And, later in the summer, the smells. Nothing smells quite as bad as a beach towel that has lived in the woods of a humid camp all summer.
One day at camp a good friend of mine, a hardworking, standup guy, came into the office and lamented, "It's been a long day." Then paused a minute, and amended that to: "Wait—it's been a long life."
I heard a new definition of burnout a while back. It's not working too hard; rather, it's doing work that really belongs to somebody else. Burning, have you let your boundaries slip? Are you fuelling somebody else's fire? When you punch out, are you really done with work, or does it follow you everywhere because you can't let it go, can't let go of control?
It might be time to back off, to be willing to let stuff fail, even if it feels like lives are at stake. We who are in the helping professions can sometimes get an overdeveloped sense of our own necessity. We mean well, but because our work sometimes literally has saved lives, we think if we could just.do.more of it, we could also save even more. But what we are really trying to save is our specialness, our feelings of effectiveness, our egos.
There is a lot of talk these days about "self-care." Sometimes this is code for laziness and slackerdom. What we need is not more self-care, but more self-differentiation—knowing where our work ends and somebody else's begins. Working too hard doesn't just hurt us and the people who want to relax with us; it deprives our co-workers or our parishioners of the responsibility of living up to their own potential.
What does self-differentiation look like? Saying "I'm sorry, no, I can't." Then quitting on time. Having enough fun. Tending to the skins we're in. There is very little that a long shower or a bubble bath can't cure. A little bit of selfishness goes a long way.
If it helps, think of doing these things as part of your work—the activity, invisible to your boss and coworkers, that makes your visible work so excellent.
Another piece of self-differentiation is opening up some spaciousness in your day, and not having to defend that choice to anybody—not boss, not spouse, not kids. Leave 5% of your life for...nothing. Nothing makes us anxious. Who knows what might come up in the nothing? But you are probably of an age where you know some things, you have some experience. God might have a new assignment for you, and what is God to do if there's no space to move into?
Maybe most importantly, self-differentiation looks like humor. Just the right amount of sarcasm about the things that go wrong at work—not enough, and we're straight-faced martyrs; too much, and we become jaded and poisonous, so many Ecclesiasteses moaning "I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun." Cynicism is one fire that catches too quickly.
Flannery O'Connor, in her terrifying short story "Revelation," warned us that even our virtues would be burned away. What will be left if those parts of ourselves that we think of as good, hard-working, effective and helpful catch fire and turn to ash, at the threshold of Heaven?
Then again, maybe we're overthinking it. Ecclesiastes also said, "moreover, it is God's pleasure that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil." Perhaps, in that order.
Bless you, and may you be a blessing,
"Dear Theo" is written anonymously by three UCC ministers of different ages and backgrounds--one main writer and two respite writers. We're hoping the questions will span all kinds of topics: from sexuality and relationships to church culture and conflict to mental health, family drama, ethical and moral dilemmas, and everything in between.
Every week will feature a new letter and a new answer. Please write Dear Theo with your questions and problems by sending to email@example.com. Letter writers identities will also ALWAYS remain anonymous.