The Burden of Choice
No, SIES is not really another disease for us to worry about. Rather, this has been my own rueful self-diagnosis, resulting from an examination of my lifestyle. SIES stands for 'Self-Inflicted-Exhaustion-Syndrome', and I suspect that I am not alone in experiencing it.
As I took an honest look at my lifestyle, I began to realise that it was not just circumstances that were making my life so tiring and unmanageable. I saw that I too was a contributing factor as I continually took on too many commitments. This 'taking on more than we can cope with' is partly the result of increasing choice concerning what we are able to do with our lives. Along with the technological explosion - which keeps our minds racing to stay abreast with each new discovery - our lives have sped up to breakneck speed.
The words of T S Eliot written in 1934 have a prophetic ring to them.
While it is important to acknowledge that many in the world do not have the luxury of choice, the reality is that most readers of this article will be faced with a veritable smorgasbord. To give some context to the environment which sets us sighing just look at the choices that have come, for example, with the invention of the car and the electric light.
The car should be our servant, yet it has us trapped by the number of new possibilities it allows. Now we can go here, there, everywhere, zipping around to meetings, courses, shopping at all hours. The electric light means we can stretch our days far from the natural rhythm of daytime and night. And then there is cyberspace, which lures us as we explore its seemingly endless material.
Of course we cannot go backwards and live in the past, but an awareness of the way we are stretching our days, weeks, months and years can help us manage our lives better, and maybe avoid too much SIES.
Although the frenetic pace of life is common to many parts of society, Christians have their own vulnerability. With church-based 'add-ons' to our weekly working life we can be on a treadmill just as destructive as the corporate treadmills we regularly hear about.
Adding to this pressure is the area in which Christians can be their own worst enemies - that of guilt, particularly false guilt. People feel unable to say 'no' to any request, and end up burnt out.
The implication of our present way of life seems to be that if God were giving us the Ten Commandments today, there would surely be an outcry at the idea of a 'day off' to rest. We would feel that it was just not on. There are far too many important things to do!
In C S Lewis's classic The Screwtape Letters2 he depicts a senior devil, Screwtape, talking to a junior devil, Wormwood, about the strengths and weaknesses of Christians. An updated version might well depict Screwtape clapping his hands in glee at the sight of Christians racing lemming-like into today's frenetic lifestyle, with its resulting burnout, exhaustion and (sometimes), loss of faith ("I was doing all this for God - how could he let me down so badly?").
I am not talking about clear-cut choices between things that are good and things that are obviously not healthy. Very often all the things we have to choose between are good in themselves. But that does not make them all things that are right for us to be doing now. A person exhausted, stressed and SIEing is not going to be very effective in any of the things they are doing.
In Jesus' life God gave us a model for living. Jesus had endless needs presented to him - all valid - but he knew what his father really wanted him to do on each occasion because Jesus lived his life listening to God. His life had a rhythm he was in the press of the crowds, and then he drew away for time alone, for prayer and restoration. Without some check on our frenetic race through life we are in danger of being far too busy to hear the cry of the human soul, or even to hear our own cries.
So, how do we avoid Self Inflicted Exhaustion? How can we make wise decisions about the multitude of choices facing us? How do we live lives of love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness and self-control in a time of drivenness and exhaustion? How can we lessen the sighing?
One important way is to know ourselves. Having a 'sober estimate' of who we are and what we are best able to do can be a first defence in avoiding Self Inflicted Exhaustion. The authors of the book Chaos or Creation sum it up well in their chapter on burnout: "The primary cause of burnout is that one excessively strives to meet unreal expectations imposed by oneself or by others".3
Here are some basic questions to consider:
Long ago I realised that I was an 'instant yes' person. For me the reply "I would like a day or two to think this over and get back to you" can save me from the messiness that results further down the line when my 'yes' has to be changed to 'no'.
The church world, mirroring the world of business, has a vast number of courses and workshops available. Going from one to the next can be a contributing factor to overload, but choosing an appropriate one can be a real investment of time. For example, courses such as Network, which help identify our gifts and style, can give us a clearer picture of how we can work most effectively. Feedback from people who have done this course indicates that they are finding it easier to work out when to say 'yes', and when to say 'no'.
Likewise, time-tested personality type indicators such as Myers-Briggs can help us to understand who we are - both our strengths and our weaknesses. Then when we look at the range of all the things we could be doing, our choosing between them will be made easier as we attempt to fit in with how God has made us. Ultimately this will lead to enrichment in our own lives and in those whose lives we touch.
Of course we can always be growing and developing towards the full potential of who God made us; but such growth will enhance the basic 'building blocks' of our personality and gifts and not distort us into being someone we were not created to be.
In my own life I have a good example of how people differ. My friend John and I were born on the same day of the same year, and joke about being 'twins'. On our 'significant' birthdays John celebrates with a capital 'C' and a large gathering, my choice is a quiet evening with family and my closest friends. We are both firmly committed to God's kingdom, caring for others, and being involved in our community. How we work this out is totally different.
John has been involved in developing national organisations and producing events catering to thousands. My involvement overall is in one-to-one work. We are just different. If I were to follow John's programme for a week I would be carted off, suffering from exhaustion. If he were following mine we might be able to avert future power crises by harnessing his surplus energy! Yet we are both following our calling as Christians in society. The choices we make are consistent with who we are.
Know Your Call and Season
God's driven, exhausted people do well to stop and take a look at Ecclesiastes 3: "There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven".4 Every year it can be good to take time to look at what are God-given priorities for this year/this time of life. If we flow with our life-stage and our circumstances this can be so rich and rewarding.
In recent years I had a 'season' as a mature student returning to study after a gap of 25 years. I felt that it was important preparation time for the next phase of my life, and was God's call for that time. In many ways I had to put on 'blinkers' to many other things I would have been naturally involved in over those three years. That was painful. There was much to give up, but the result was a richness - in the course, and in relationships with fellow students. There was a cost in making this choice - but there would have been a greater cost had I not done so.
Fortunately there is a changing attitude, a growing recognition that though for some our call may be to work specifically within the organisation of the church, for most of us our call is just as likely to be being 'salt and light' in our family, our secular workplace, our community.5 If our witness to those at work or home is that of a crabby, stressed person exhausted by combined work and church commitments - what is that saying?
Again, when looking at the deluge of conferences, workshops etc. for Christians I remember the words of a very wise friend. He decided that he would not go to the next event until he felt that he had really taken what he had learned from the previous one and put it into practice in his own life. Now that is a radical idea!
Our knowledge of our God-given strengths, an awareness of times and seasons and current responsibilities can all become touchstones by which we can evaluate our choices.
It can be very helpful to look honestly at our motivation for what we are doing. Is it for God? Is it so that other people will think I am wonderful? Whose needs am I filling by doing this? If I feel guilty when I say 'no', is false guilt the driving force? Is pressure coming from the question: "What will they think of me if I turn them down?"
Another question to ask is how much am I trying to do by myself? The gospel of Matthew speaks powerfully on this issue: "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."6 When we are doing what God has called us to do, we become fellow workers with Christ. We are not called to shoulder it all ourselves.
We also need to examine whether we are afraid of 'space'. Today's lifestyle seems to be an exercise in seeing how many things will fit into each day. If there is a gap we feel compelled to fill it. There are inevitably going to be times of busyness beyond our control, but if we have leeway built into our lives we are better able to handle them. When I suggested to an exhausted, overloaded friend the idea of allowing time for the unexpected (which we can always expect in life), her response was "But what if nothing happens and you are left with that space?"
In Jeremiah there is a telling passage. "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind to reward a man according to his conduct, according to what his deeds deserve."7 We are often blind to the way our lives are going. This is where we can be helped by people we trust - such as friends, family, a mentor and/or a spiritual director - who will help us see things more clearly.
If we have the honesty to ask for and receive input we have the opportunity to be accountable. The key thing is honesty with ourselves, before God and others, and a willingness to listen. When a good friend commented that my life was so scheduled that there was no space left in it, I was stunned. I thought I had been managing my time so well, but realised that I had overdone it and left no room for 'life'.
One very important thing to learn is that 'no' is not negative - it can bring life and fullness when used correctly. Saying 'no' to what is not right is saying 'yes' to freedom, to quality in what we are doing. The corollary to the 'no' is that we may have the space to hear God's 'yes'.
So how do we gain perspective? "Every now and then go away, have a little relaxation, for when you come back to your work your judgment will be surer; since to remain constantly at work will cause you to lose power of judgment. Go some distance away because the work appears smaller and more of it can be taken in at a glance, and a lack of harmony or proportion is more readily seen." A quote for our times? In fact Leonardo Da Vinci wrote this in the fifteenth century, but it is wisdom that can be applied today.
There are a variety of ways in which we can "go some distance away". If we could learn to take the day of rest that God commanded that would be a good start! Time relaxing with friends and family - some real laughter and fun - can be part of bringing balance to life.
Literally going away can help. Holidays can be good times to get perspective on how full of SIES our lives have become. Being near the sea, walking in the bush, taking time to really look at the night sky, to see the intricate beauty in a flower - these are good ways to remind ourselves of God the creator and of our smallness in the universe. One of my favourite cartoons has a young woman looking up at the stars. The caption reads, "As Cecily contemplated the universe her bad haircut didn't seem quite so important." Perspective, perspective, perspective!
Reading, wisely chosen, can be life giving. Time out in reading God's word gives us wisdom for each day, and a much broader context for our lives. It can be very helpful to get Bible reading notes where others' thoughts and perspectives on Scripture give us fresh insights.
It is possible to grasp 'time out' in small daily doses, no matter where we are or what our circumstances. Joyce Huggett's book Finding God in the Fast Lane: and Also in Life's Laybys8 is based on the classic The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence. It deals with the reality of our pace of life, but also helps us with practical ways of finding times of peace within this. My own experience has been that half an hour's walk after work as I 'talk over' the day with God helps bring clarity, and enables me to relax when I am finally at home.
Unloading the Overload: Stress Management for Christians9 is an excellent resource, written from the painful experience of extreme burnout of one of the authors. Written by Australians Dr Cliff Powell and Dr Graham Barker, it is full of very practical examples and suggestions culminating in the final section, which helps us look at "God's rhythm of life".
There are also places to go specifically for retreats. There have been a variety of options advertised from time to time in Reality. Spiritual Growth Ministries10 can be a good place to start searching for ideas, as they are nondenominational and list places and events throughout the country. Traditionally the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches have centuries of experience in offering places for drawing aside for time with God. Then there are individual people or groups such as Orama Christian Community, which has been established on Great Barrier Island for over 25 years and offers a place to relax, refocus and recharge.11
Finding a way of getting perspective may use up more time in our already busy lives, but Sue Monk Kidd in her book God's Joyful Surprise seems to sum up the value of doing this, as she talks about leaving a rushed 'out of control' lifestyle for one centred in God.
Instead of rushing about accepting every job that comes, we get a sense of what's really important. Being centred allows us to bring that elusive quality of focus to our lives. It enables us to set priorities . . . . For in the centre we are rooted in God's love. In such a place there is no need for striving and impatience and dashing about seeking approval.12
The ways in which we are able to stand back from our lives will vary according to who we are, our life-stage and our circumstances. But by taking some time to think about these things prayerfully we can develop priorities, using the knowledge of how God has made us, how we are gifted and what our calling is for the present time.
As my good friends and family will assure you, I still struggle with relapses of SIES. I can be my own worst enemy in the choices I make. But at least I am learning to recognise the symptoms, take time out with God and put into practice some life-giving resolutions.