Follow Your Bliss! And Other Bullshit
Write in a gratitude journal. Oxygenate by taking three deep breaths. Have a spa day! Follow your bliss.
The internet is full of self-care tips. Splurge on something special. But build a nest egg! Go on a date, unless you’re single. Then go on a date with yourself! Get 15 minutes of sun. But have perfect skin. Narrow your food choices. Treat yourself! Inhale an upbeat smell. Be ambitious. Devote your life to your work. Learn how to say no, but also do all the things. Some of these tips are not bad, in and of themselves. I love a spa day. And ambition. And breathing. Gratitude and sunshine are great. But, so much of what I’ve been exposed to in media offers people (usually aimed women, specifically, relatively affluent white women), offers some this chasm between hedonism and ambition without boundaries. People should either live for the moment and seek out sensual, happy-making experiences, or work as hard as possible, lean in, dream big and let your ambition drive you.
I spent a lot of time in the latter category. If I was working as hard as I could, for a cause that was worthwhile, then certainly that would be sufficient, I believed. And many colleagues and volunteers agreed, if not by their words, than certainly from their actions. The more hours I worked, the more I was willing to show up, the more others expected of me. No amount of time would have been sufficient. I’d argue that a lot of folks in helping professions find themselves here at one point or another. People who work for non-profits, social workers, teachers, religious leaders, and others I’ve known can operate out of this belief that they should give everything they have and everything they are to this cause to which they feel so deeply moved. Maybe others figured out this is not sustainable, or found ways to nourish themselves, or had better boundaries, but I hung my hat on being the Fixer of The Universe, and ran 100 miles an hour for years. And, surprise, surprise, I burned out.
I’ll tell you this about burning out. It came as a complete and total surprise, and I am still working through the ramifications of it. I’m still working through it, because what I believed about work and meaning were incomplete. I believed that if you love something, and if you’re good at it, and if the work you’re doing matters, then that will be enough to keep you going. I learned, the hard way, that that is bullshit.
Because I deeply and truly loved so much of what I was doing when I was serving in a church. But it was not sufficient. I was good at what I did. I’m still good at what I do. But it was not sufficient. So much of what I was doing mattered. But it was not sufficient. And that reality, more than anything, is what broke me. It forced me to look at my life, and evaluate who I was and what I needed. It’s forced me to look at how I balanced my own needs with the needs of those I felt called to care for. I still don’t have an answer for that. I don’t know that most models in church settings are capable of providing the particular space and needs for me to succeed long-term. And it’s in that challenging and uncertain space that I’m trying to reside for awhile.
During this time, I had felt that I had failed, as a pastor and person because I “couldn’t cut it”. That I was somehow not really called or just bad at my job because I couldn’t handle the pressures that ministry imposes on its leaders. And, even as I write this, I can imagine colleagues jumping in to try and pastoral care me, partly because they love me, but also partly because even having these kinds of conversations about are anathema. I don’t doubt that these kinds of conversations are anathema in other settings, too. That is such a shame. And it’s bullshit.
The one thing that has become crystal clear to me during this time of uncertainty is that there must be a better way. I’m sure the way I’m working toward won’t work for everyone—nothing works for all people. Maybe there are some reading this post who work in settings and they’re doing just fine. That is fabulous. Go kill it, sister. But for those who are wading through this murky middle ground, or some other middle ground that doesn’t look like mine but is also insufficient, welcome to the party. Let’s do this together. I’m trying to find a way to live a life that is fully integrated—my whole self, not a self that gets isolated into safe, practical boxes. Join me.