This is another journal entry as prompted by my Leadership course at Western Theological Seminary. All prompts are based on a chapter from the book “Strengthening Your Leadership” by Ruth Haley Barton. This week, the chapter focused on living within your limits and the warning signs of not doing that. Coming at the midway point of the semester, this post is deeply personal and challenging for me…hopefully you’ll get a glimpse of why!
As any discussion on limits and burn out does, reading this chapter made me laugh to myself as I was reading.
Not because anything was particularly funny, but because I found Barton’s words to be describing occurrences that happen far too often in my own life. I have known for years (and maybe even my entire life) that I tend to function in the “too busy” section of the world, and that this has been my biggest weakness for as long as I can remember. I have seen the warning signs of burn out often, and many of my strategies for handling stress were mentioned by Barton as warning signs of breaking past our limits – and not in a good way.
I am a firm believer that limits are a good and necessary thing. We are human, and we are not super creatures that can function without rest and sleep and time to be still. Sabbath was created for a reason! We read in Genesis 2:2-3 (NIV) that “By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy,because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.” Even in the creation of our entire world, God took a break. He had done good work and took time to rest before continuing on to do more good work. This is the example that we are given to follow – we are given time to rest and to recharge, because we need that in order to continue to do good work.
However, our culture today has taken away our Sabbath and replaced it with a need for work. We are measured by our achievements, what we get done in a day and the hectic pace at which we live our lives. How many times in our day does a simple “How are you doing” turn into a competition to see who has more going on that day? We take pride in our busy schedules that we keep, and in the lack of sleep and fatigue that it causes in most of our lives.
I will be the first to admit that this happens in my life ALL. THE. TIME. As much as I believe in limits, I rarely follow them. I am a graduate student with 19 credits, a part time job, a an internship, a husband, a family, friends, and a townhouse. I am constantly under pressure to be doing SOMETHING – anything – to keep getting things done. Spare moments are filled with a quick skim of a chapter for class, or starting a load of laundry or putting away dishes. I have been taught to fill my time with productivity, not rest, and so that is how I live.
When we live lives that are this busy, we blast through our limits and try to live somewhere outside of them. We live in the unhealthy space of not sleeping and working too hard and never saying no, and are often overworked and overachieving at the highest levels at the cost of ourselves. In a conversation with my mentor a few days ago, he told me that “Every time you say yes to something, you are saying no to something else – and that’s usually yourself”.
I think that this is true in all of our lives.
So, what does this overworking do to us? It makes us tired. It takes away from relationships with friends and family and church. It takes away from time spent with God and in silence. It takes away from the time we need to recharge and replaces it with work, which drains what energy we have left. We live in stress and anxiety.
Let me give you an example from my life:
I have known since my junior year of high school that I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder (G.A.D). This is something that I have learned to live with in my life, and have learned to recognize the symptoms and patterns that it has inserted into my life. Perhaps the area that my G.A.D. influences the most is in stressful places. When I get stressed, which with a full schedule happens more often than not, my anxiety is in full swing. It causes my mind to spin and spin and spin, and I can’t do anything to slow it down. I panic and work to attempt to get a break, but that usually doesn’t work. Instead – I freeze.
I don’t handle things, I don’t work, I don’t really do anything. This is my version of the “escapist behavior” that Barton mentions – I don’t have the energy even to escape into eating or drinking (which are “escape strategies” described by Barton), but shut down into someone who lays on the couch and stares at the TV, whether it is on or not. I feel exactly how it is described – “this becomes a vicious cycle, because escapist behaviors actually drain energy from us – energy that we could use to make life-giving choices – and then we just get more and more lethargic” (Barton, 105). Freezing is my version of running away from my problems. I don’t take off and disappear from them, but I don’t face them either. I kind of just melt into a puddle, and it takes a long time to be put back together.
When I enter this place, when I shut down and feel like I can’t function, I truly am disconnected my my identity and calling, and I can’t attend to any human needs – my own or anyone else’s. This is not a healthy place by any stretch of the imagination, and it is not somewhere that I enjoy being. This is not a place that I am designed to be in. As a seminary student and future pastor, I want to be an example to my congregation and ministry of how to live the best life possible, the one that God designed for us – and being so burned out that I can’t move is not that life.
This is not a life that I want to continue to live.
I need to stop the glorification of busy.
I am not entirely sure how to resolve the busyness in my own life, but I am learning. I am learning that leadership is not a solitary activity, and while it does take a lot of responsibility to lead well, it does not mean that you have to handle it alone. I am learning that it’s okay to say no to good things, so that there is time to rest and recharge. I am learning that I cannot be everything to everyone, and disappointment is a part of life in leadership. I am learning that taking time to rest and do nothing is a perfectly acceptable use of my time. I am learning that God designed me to need sleep, and that there is no shame in sleeping instead of doing that last paper or last chapter of reading.
I’m not saying this is easy, but it’s so worth the time.