One of the gifts of engaging so many people from so many regions of the world is observing consistent themes. One of the themes that is always observed is exhaustion. No matter where we are, the people we tend to are flat out exhausted.
By exhaustion I do not merely mean that these folks are in transition or are simply jet-lagged and need a good vacation. That is often true. But this exhaustion runs much deeper than that. This is a level of exhaustion that is years in the making. Like a chilled, winter fog, the fatigue has crept into every crevice of their lives – physically, mentally, emotionally, relationally, and professionally.
How does such exhaustion come about? Well, let’s remind ourselves of some of the complexities and demands of cross-cultural life and work. First, let’s consider stress. The number of stressors is immense. Financial, relational, professional, security/safety concerns, lack of effectiveness, profound effectiveness, transportation, pollution, weather…..we are duly reminded that there is much that pulls on us. Second, there are the emotional whiplashes we experience in our present communications. In a matter of moments, for example, one can be rejoicing that a long-time friend has trusted Christ and suddenly word reaches us that another car bomb rocked the market place today. We have no time to celebrate the one, let alone grieve the other. Life comes at us so fast via social media, the news, and emails. Technology robs us of lingering time to process all of these emotional rocks in the ponds of our souls, let alone the resulting ripples. Our emotional lives are pushed and pulled constantly and we seldom take the time to reflect and process what we have experienced in solitude and with a wise friend. This leads to, third, a build-up of losses that have not been named and thus, not grieved. The global “community” is a mobile one. Colleagues and friends move away. Roles, organizational leadership and strategies are often changing. Major life events come and go with hardly an acknowledgement. I could go on listing more causes of exhaustion. I have merely listed three. The constant flow of stress, the emotional whiplash of a blazing fast world, and the accumulations of losses is plenty to make anyone tired. I feel tired just writing about it.
Accumulation is also an impactful reality. Year after year we have a back log of life experiences that have not been tended to, grieved, celebrated, honored, named, or pondered. They have simply flown by side-swiping us, like some sort of chronic hit and run dynamic. We are left bruised, battered, and flustered. And exhausted. We learn well how to keep our heads down and plow on in order to keep going and getting our job done.
Sometimes the deepest conversations we have with global workers will start with a mere question and the tears begin to flow. Then those tears, if permitted, will flow for days. This accumulation of life experiences finally has a safe place to surface.
Often during more extended gatherings (several days at a retreat, a personal debriefing, etc.), the longer we sit the more tired we begin to feel. What causes this dynamic? I sense it is the adrenalin settling in our systems. We are bolstered by our adrenal system to get us through another day or another demanding situation when there is no “gas in the tank.” We think we are Spirit-dependent. I wonder if we are mostly just adrenalin junkies. In the unconscious response of putting our heads down and plowing on, our systems compensate with adrenalin to keep us upright and moving ahead. It is an unhealthy reality. We are going deep into debt and one day we will have to pay up. That is when depression, panic attacks, rage, fear, or a chronic health problem paralyzes us and we are side-lined for some time. We are not invincible. When our systems are over-loaded, the breakdown is only a matter of time.
So what to do? Well, this could get messier before it gets better. I offer 6 ideas to get you started.
First, we have to cease taking cues from the world and begin to fix our gaze more intently on Jesus. This is not a mere spiritual bandaid. Jesus modeled for us how to live in a world strewn with needs and yet not be driven by those demands. Jesus was not need-driven. He was responsive to his Father’s love. He was never in a rush, never hurried, never harried. We can learn of him. Matthew 11:28-30 are well known verses (“my yoke is easy”). I have seldom heard what is meant by that yoke. I wrote of this in a previous blog (you can read it here). Our central truth is our relationship with the Father in Christ by the Spirit. Our core identity is that we are adopted sons and daughters. We are invited to be responsive to the Father’s love, not the demands of the world around us. As we grow in this dynamic, our lives will come into focus. Read Michael Reeves Delighting in the Trinity as a primer on the truth of the relationship God is inviting us to. To the degree this central reality does not penetrate our world, is the degree we will continue to be pulled along by whatever rip-tides we find ourselves standing amidst.
Second, we have to slow down. We simply demand too much of ourselves (and our kids and our spouses and our peers and our subordinates and our supervisors….). Entire books are written on this subject, some listed below. Here is one simple practice that will help: reflection. I would suggest that every week at least a 1/2 day is taken to sit over a cup of coffee and ponder some questions, like:
What feelings have I been experiencing this week? Why?
How have I been responding? Why?
What has the Father spoken to me about this week?
What from the Word has caught my attention?
What fears are influencing me?
Where am I responding well to life? Where not so well?
Have I been sitting still, quietly with God to allow him to tend to me, care for me, nourish me? Why/why not?
Come up with your own list of questions to prompt you. Also, find a counselor or mentor or spiritual guide to call upon at least once a month. This is not for professional coaching. This is for personal processing. ALL of us need counselors in our lives. Many of us would gain from engaging a clinical counselor. This can be a wise investment of time and money. Consider it, please.
Third, take Sabbath seriously. I mean guard it (almost) fanatically. Choose one day a week and shut it all down. Shabot does not mean rest. It means cease. Yes, cease and desist from anything that smells of work. No email (I know, I know, you already have the shakes. You can do it!). No phone calls. No allowing your mind to wander to solving the latest problems of life. On Sabbath our primary focus is to delight ourselves in the Lord. We do that in community, in rest, in play, in eating and drinking, in blessing and worshipping, in sleeping and lounging. If you have a young family, make it a fun day; a day different than any other day. No legalism allowed.
Fourth, take a vacation. I mean really, just take it already. Get over yourself. The kingdom will not come to a grinding halt without you. If you will not take vacation time (or honor Sabbath) then that is a good measurement of how significantly your identity is tied to what you do, rather than being an adopted child of the Father. Let go of the reigns, set yourself aside for some time, go outside and play for a while.
Fifth, take good care of yourself. You know, all that stuff you learned in kindergarten about eating, taking a nap, sharing and taking a recess (remember those?).
Sixth, develop yourself. Read books. Attend a retreat. Learn a new skill or hobby. Invest time and money in yourself. That is not selfish. It is wise stewardship. This investment will overflow toward others.
I do not mean to be overly simplistic but honestly, I am meeting so many people who have lost focus in life that the implementation of these simple ideas can revolutionize a walk with God, a marriage, or a career.
Seriously, we are exhausted. You know you are called to lay your lives down for others. But do you even have a life to lay down? Or are you so thin, so depleted, so worn that your life looks more like a thread bare-piece of cloth? Are people receiving the fumes of your exhaustion or the overflow of your vibrancy in the resurrected Christ? These are not simple questions. They will take some time to consider and to live into.
In the end, this chronic depletion is hindering our efforts at kingdom objectives – let alone being a friend, spouse, parent or teammate. We are not living within our limits and we are dying because of it. Sometime over the next week, take a couple of hours and do some lingering evaluation of your life. How do you want to live? Make some hard choices.
A Reflection for Shepherds: How is your own self-care? How low are your tanks? Sheep need a shepherd who is not exhausted him/herself. By taking good care of yourself, you are can take good care of others. Again, modeling is one of the best gifts we can provide. In your care of others, ask pointed questions about their emotional, physical, spiritual, and relational worlds. Be quick with encouragement, hope, and resources. Do not hesitate to refer to another professional. Above all else, bring Jesus to others and others to Jesus. In the end, he is the vine. We all must be abiding in him.
Michael Reeves Delighting in the Trinity (see a short review here)
Lynn Baab Sabbath Keeping
Archibald Hart Adrenaline and Stress
Steven Smith The Lazarus Life and The Jesus Life