Sunday, January 17, 2010

Burnout – When Too Much is Never Enough

Approaching burnout is not a lot of fun. This spiral into spiritual and practical hopelessness comes in different ways for different people, but the common outcome is often life-changing.

When I approached burnout and succumbed a moment before reaching it several years ago I was shocked how it came. I was playing table tennis of all things. Can you imagine seeing the ball to hit but not being able to use your mind to move the bat to make contact? We’ll that was me! It would’ve been laughable if it wasn’t so serious. My mind felt frozen. I’d become a spectator—‘shut in’—in my own life and I felt mentally and emotionally numb. Fortunately this only lasted a few hours (this time).

Ever since this initial occurrence I’ve been prone to what I call ‘mental fog,’ which is when the mind freezes and literally nothing can be done but escape to sanctuary.

This first occasion of mental fog was a warning sign. I’d eighteen months beforehand suffered a marriage breakdown and on the long road back to rebuilding my identity I found love in many places—I was just thrilled to be alive! I was passionately involved as a part-time parent, involved as a ministry leader at my church, working three days per week in a busy role in the workplace, a volunteer student mentor at a primary school, and, I was also studying a postgraduate degree at fulltime load—fully engaged in seminary life!

There was no lack of things to do and I just felt blessed with my capacity to do everything I could. I loved learning, serving and just being involved. Due to the loneliness of “becoming” single I spent many of my nights out with others. It was a very busy life in reflection.

I’m actually quite bewildered now how much I attempted in my life at that time let alone what I achieved. And as I look back there were many warning signs previous to my actual table tennis meltdown that I didn’t heed. Our bodies and minds have ways of forcing our hands, as I learned.

The mood of my life at this point was ‘fresh life.’ I was living the stridently confident faith of a new-born believer who had then known God for nearly fifteen years. I was living full of hope. I was even living an unrealistic hope, but it carried me interminably forward in any event. This hope (although it proved false inevitably) provided sufficient distance not to distract me from building a strong launch-pad for take two of life for the future. You see, like others in the same situation I was strongly tempted to ‘move on’ prematurely in life. (Recalling via my journal at the time, I was still going through significant grief-of-identity.[1]) Given that I still needed a year or two more to recover properly from my first marriage breakdown, being in a seed bed situation was very good for me and my future—it was entirely necessary looking back.

So, I was ripe for eventual burnout. Inspired yet without the necessary maturity to harness the inspiration, my enthusiasm was prophetic for my mental demise. Burnout both initiates and concludes mentally with spin-offs emotionally, physically and spiritually.

I did withdraw from many of the discretionary activities. I had to. I had to learn how to say no. I had to learn how not to be a ‘yes-man.’ I was very, very fortunate that I received nothing but the fullest support from everyone I had to “disappoint.”

Burnout can involve time and tension—it did for me. My problem was that enthusiasm for life, and the activity of life, burned strongly within me. I was positively tense. I saw, and still see, so many good things to do. The only way to reduce the positive tension regarding time is not to be too greedy with it and try to do too much. The trick is accepting we can only (best) do one thing at a time.

Temptations producing lives subject to burnout come from our outer worlds—those external to our being. This is important because it shows us where our focus needs to be in creating (or re-creating) a balanced life. A huge part of recovering our balance is supplementing our inner (spiritual) world.

According to Gordon MacDonald the answer is not easy, but it is simple:

“We escape into the space of the inner world only when we determine that it is an activity more important than anything else we do.”[2]

We cannot have it all. Resisting burnout, or responding to it, requires from us the strength of self-discipline to say, “NO!” The problem for the person already burned out is they have precious little mental, emotional and spiritual strength left to think and act consistently in self-disciplined ways.

It highlights a classic cliché: prevention is better than cure.

Perhaps it’s wise to leave the last word to John Wesley who, whilst living a very effective overall life, got his public-life balance right:

“Though I am always in haste, I am never in a hurry, because I never undertake more work than I can go through with calmness of spirit.”

© 2010 S. J. Wickham.




[1] After a marital-type relationship breakdown, it is said that the people affected need one year in every four years of that relationship to properly recover and heal. For me personally, a thirteen year marriage meant I needed at least three years of single life in order to fully recover and heal. (Source: DivorceCare.) Recovery is not something that should be rushed.

[2] Gordon MacDonald, Ordering Your Private World (Updated Edition) (Surrey, Great Britain: Highland Books, 1985, 2003), p. 238.

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