Suffering is real
The nadir of my burnout probably came with the death of my mother in February 2019.
For more than 20 years I had worked at a job that I do well, but that, as time went by, I found more and more difficult, and less and less rewarding. Congruency – integrity – are essential qualities in my operating system. What started out as a marrying of vocation (calling, deep purpose, raison d’être) and delivery system (paying bills and putting food on the table) slowly but surely bifurcated.
I started other projects on the side to deepen the meaningful nature of my work, all the while keeping up the full-time delivery system and trying to be a good father, husband, son, and homeowner.
Trying to do too much.
Trying to find peace, or redemption, or home.
Even when I felt like I had nothing left to offer, I kept going – going through the motions many days. For years. Because I was afraid, and felt trapped, and couldn’t see a way out.
Then my mother was diagnosed with brain cancer.
No one buys a round-trip ticket to burnout
Burning out is similar to travelling to a far-away place: there are lots of ways of getting there – some more direct and faster than others.
High pressure jobs that demand everything, long hours, single parenting, mental and/or physical health challenges, lack of meaning or purpose in what one is doing, abusive relationships, trauma, loneliness and isolation – these are some of the principal causes. Sometimes, as was the case with me, it’s the convergence of several factors which creates a load too great to bear.
What everyone who burns out has in common is that none of us start there. No one sits down, points to burnout on a map and says “that’s where I want to go!”.
Burnout is not a natural state. When was the last time you met a burned-out toddler? It may be increasingly common, but burnout is not normal.
How we get to the place of burnout matters in so far as it contains information for us about what we need to do to get out of it. Here is where I think it’s helpful to distinguish between different kinds of problems and their solutions.
Technical Problems and Adaptive Challenges
We who are part of societies that derive from western, European origins have inherited a tendency to think of problems as things that can be fixed.
Got a leaking pipe? Fix it yourself or call a plumber.
Car won’t start? Fix it or call a mechanic.
Break your arm? You probably want to skip trying to fix it yourself and go straight to the professionals. Indoor plumbing, modern transportation, and western medicine are true marvels that have made life better for billions of people.
One of the downsides of a culture that has made so many technological advances is that we tend to think of everything we don’t like as a problem to be fixed. Which is fine, as long as the thing we don’t like is a fixable – or technical – problem.
But there is a type of problem for which there is no technical fix. These problems are too large and complex, like world hunger and climate change. These problems require people to think in new and different ways to work toward a solution. Ronald Heifetz of the Harvard Business School has called these problems adaptive challenges.
Diagnosing your burnout
It’s pretty tough to treat something effectively without first diagnosing it properly.
It may be that your type of burnout is purely a technical problem: quit that 90 hour per week job and it’s all smooth sailing! More than likely, however, your burnout is a complex knot of factors, some of which are technical, others of which are adaptive.
Quitting your 90 hour per week job is technical. Delving into what motivated you to accept a 90 hour per week job in the first place, or turn a 40 or 50 hour per week job into a 90 hour per week job … that’s probably going to require some adaptive work.
If you look up burnout online, the lists of what to do about it usually consist of technical fixes for the most part. There may be something on there about “look at your life” or “get therapy” which, depending on how you do that, may get into the adaptive work.
Overall, though, we tend to think of burnout the way we prefer to think of most things we want to change: as a technical problem with a technical fix.
The other kind of burnout
What if what you are experiencing is not exclusively a technical problem?
My own experience told me that applying technical fixes to my situation was not ultimately going to resolve whatever was amiss. When burnout is more than a technical problem, it is one of the ways our soul has of alerting us to the fact that something needs our attention.
In his book A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, author, educator and activist Parker Palmer likens the soul to “a wild animal — tough, resilient, savvy, self-sufficient and yet exceedingly shy.” The soul must be approached gently in order to get close enough to hear what it wants to teach us.
The risk of treating burnout as only, or even primarily, a technical problem, is that we might miss an opportunity to open the letter sent special delivery from the soul inviting us into the adaptive work that is really the heart (and soul) of the matter. Our bodies contain deep wisdom for us if we take time to learn how to interpret the language they speak.
The heart (and soul) of the matter
In many ways it doesn’t make sense for me to have spent as much of my life in the shadows as it sometimes feels like I have. Mine has been quite a privileged life in the grand scheme of things. But the experience of suffering is not relative, and it’s a fool’s game to compete to see who has suffered more.
Your experience is your experience. Contextualize your experience? Sure. Relativize it? Don’t bother.
My experience has included a life-time of varying degrees of depression and anxiety. My unofficial totem – bestowed by those who love me, thereby rendering it more acceptable – is Eeyore. For a long time, my inner masochist got something out of feeling sorry for myself. Eventually the rest of me got bored of it. As much as I love the time I have spent in the sun, the shadows are a familiar place.
Regardless of how familiar you are with the shadowy places, they need not be your permanent or exclusive residence.
My intention with this Huddol Journey, Burnout: Journeying from the Shadows to a Brighter Path, is to take seriously the opportunity that life affords some of us through the experience of burnout to learn from our pain and thereby transform it, to move from the shadows to the sunshine.
We are more than ourselves
Most – some would say all – of our suffering, our time in the shadows, exists at the level of our personality. When I say “I am burned out,” who is the “I”?
Personality and ego are not bad. Personality and ego are a bit like the operating system of a computer: kind of essential to getting anything done. They also resemble the operating system of a computer in the sense that they have real limitations. And that’s where the analogy breaks down. Computers are constrained by the limits of their operating systems. Humans are not.
As we will touch on in this Journey, according to the ancient wisdom tradition of the Enneagram, personality forms in reaction to the universal “wounding” of primal loss.
A newborn baby has no ability to distinguish between mother and itself. In the normal development process, the infant discovers at some point that it is separate from mother. This realization creates a basic fear, and personality is to a large extent what the child develops in response.
What all the great spiritual traditions understand, explicitly or implicitly, is that, while personality and ego are essential for survival, they are limited to the extent that they are the product of this essential fear.
The wound is the gift
Why do some people burn out while others do not?
I don’t know.
But I believe that, for those who do burn out for more than technical reasons, burnout is like the grain of sand an oyster can form a pearl around. It is the Vale of Soul-Making, a painful experience that contains within it the possibility of something beautiful: a greater, fuller life.
Burnout is an example of the spiritual truth that the path to wholeness goes down before it goes up, that the way to the positive goes through the negative, that the way to live does not reject death, but includes it.
The realization that mother would die within a very short time was the final push I needed to take my burnout seriously, and to acknowledge that healing was not going to come not through my efforts to keep going in spite of burnout, but by accepting the truth of it and opening myself to what my body and soul wanted me to learn from it.
It is the promise of death that births meaning.
It’s Economics 100. Supply and demand. Like every commodity, life derives its precious value from the knowledge that each of us has a limited supply. There are only so many sunrises, snowflakes, coloured leaves, smiles, shooting stars, rock anthems, babies, warm rains.
The promise of death is the font of meaning, of purpose, of ethics, of beauty: because we do not live forever, how we live – what we choose to do with this time – matters.
Opening the gift
There are always at least two paths before us.
Even in the face of our imperfection, we make choices about which path we will take: the better angels of our nature, love, life, hope, service, friendship, compassion – all these and more are choices.
When we find ourselves bogged down in terrain that does not support the life that Love desires for us, even then, the choice remains. Which path we choose matters – to us, and the world.
One day we will close our eyes for the last time and the sun will set into endless sleep. Until that day, we are given this singular opportunity, this miracle of life, a nanosecond in the sweeping history of the universe to offer the unique gift that is each one of us.
More than just an opportunity, your small life comes with an ethical imperative bestowed upon you by the greater Life: to do whatever is yours to do. No matter how grand or seemingly insignificant it may feel, your contribution, your voice, your heart, your mind, your choices are a note in the great song Creation is singing.
Burnout is in this important sense a misnomer: that until that last sunset, the fire does not die. Burnout may be a covering or a dampening, but at its source the flame continues, however precariously.
How you respond to your burnout, like how you do everything else, matters. As if the fact that your life and purpose are at stake were not enough, it matters to the rest of us too. In the great work of walking each other home, this too is how we help each other. Right now, we need everyone burning brightly.
Need help imagining life beyond burnout?
Burnout is a growing epidemic. Conventional solutions focus on changing behaviour to resolve a physical problem. Burnout is more than a technical problem and a physical disease to be gotten rid of. It is one way our soul has of getting our attention.
Join me on this 7-days Huddol Journeys: “Burnout: Moving from the shadows to a brighter path”. I’ll help you change the system of your life so that you create an ecosystem in which burnout cannot take hold. Start today. Download the Huddol Journeys App now.
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