I didn’t choose a “word of the year” this year. The New Year happened to coincide a particularly low point in the book process, even by doomed project standards, and I scrapped the whole word choosing process when the only options I could come up with were:
Then last Tuesday I found myself at daily Mass, and I think I got my word.
My husband had kindly arranged to take a day off of work so that I could get some time to recuperate after a month that has so far been insane on a lot of different levels. Using a chunk of my precious free time to go to church was a move borne more of desperation than of pure holiness. I had really tried to keep God out of the picture and manage everything on my own, but, oddly enough, that didn’t work out so well. I’d been overwhelmed for months. Not “life-shattering crisis” overwhelmed, but just the slowly soul-sucking, “do I really want to live with this low-grade stress every day?” overwhelmed. I knew I needed to do something about it, but I was too busy treading water to figure out how to swim to shore. Meanwhile, I barely noticed that I was gradually sinking…until after the accident, when I started to drown. And so I found myself sitting in a pew on a Tuesday afternoon, not even knowing what to pray for, but just kind of hoping that if I sat there and looked extra pathetic God would notice and feel sorry for me.
I should have known that it would be an occasion of transformation, because it was the first time in a while that I had actually put God first. In contrast to my recent behavior, going to that Tuesday Mass was a radical act of faith, a routine-shattering occasion of declaring that God will work everything out if I actually give him a few moments of my attention. And sure enough, when I returned to the pew after receiving the Eucharist, there was a message for me. When I knelt in prayer a single word came to me, stopping all other thoughts and filling my mind as if I’d heard a loud roll of thunder:
I figured it was pretty safe to say that this was from the Holy Spirit and not from the Jen’s Crazy Ideas grab-bag, since it was a) clear, b) not related to anything I had been recently thinking about, and c) carried with it a feeling of great peace. As I unpacked this word and all the messages that came with it, I became more and more convinced that this was the answer that I had been looking for — as well as my guiding word for the rest of the year.
The issues I’d been having with feeling overwhelmed could be framed as an issue of authority: When I wake up each morning and start dancing like a trained monkey in response to all the requests that wait for me in my email inbox, without once considering if this is really what I should be doing at this moment, I am essentially saying that my email inbox is my authority. When I dash around trying to do X, Y, and Z because that’s what Mrs. So-and-So down the street does and therefore everyone will obviously think I’m a terrible mom if I don’t also do X, Y, and Z, I am making poor Mrs. So-and-So my authority (and she doesn’t even know me!) When I feel like I must check Twitter or text messages or whatever before I can do anything else, that media has become my authority.
Thinking about my situation this way not only helped me understand how I got into this mess in the first place, but now I know what I need to do to get out:
Place my life under the proper authority.
That doesn’t mean that I’ll cut out all of the activities that have been overwhelming me; I may even do some of them more. But instead of rushing around at the beck and call of whatever “urgent” item has popped up on my computer or smartphone, I’ll pause to ask myself what I am really serving here, and whether it should be my authority. If the task at hand seems to be from God, either because I feel peacefully led to do it, or because it falls into the category of “One of Those Things I Know God Wants Me to Do — no discernment necessary!” (e.g. feeding the kids once in a while), I’ll do it. And — here’s the key — I won’t worry about what is meanwhile not getting done, because I will understand that those tasks have no authority over me.
We’ll see how it goes. It seems to be a natural part of life that we find ourselves in a constant ebb and flow of getting overwhelmed, fighting back the chaos, then drifting into Crazyland again. So I doubt that this will be the final solution to my tendency to get myself in over my head. But it is really helping for now — and, if nothing else, it has kindled within me a burning and passionate desire for daily prayer. Setting aside a few silent moments for God each day is a good thing for a lot of reasons, but right now, the biggest one for me is that these are moments of re-orientation, of aligning my life according to its real Authority.
UPDATED TO ADD: Don’t miss Marissa Nichols’ great post on a similar subject, in which she talks about how she’s been having a tough time lately, and offers a powerful and eloquent prayer for those who are going through Hell. Beautiful stuff.
I have a personality type that leads me to feel overwhelmed a lot. I’m ambitious but lazy; I have a latent perfectionist streak that comes out at unexpected times; I’m an Olympian procrastinator; and I’m so non-confrontational that I often find myself saying “Yes, I’d love to help with that” when what I should be saying is, “I CANNOT EVEN FIND TIME TO BRUSH MY HAIR RIGHT NOW, LET ALONE SIGN UP FOR ONE MORE FREAKING THING.”
Because God looks out for people like me, I’ve had some very wise counsel in this department over the years. For one thing, my husband is an MBA with a gift for managing difficult situations. Earlier in his career he wanted to be a turnaround CEO (an executive that takes failing companies and makes them profitable), so he gained a lot of experience wading into hot messes and getting things under control. Then there was my great spiritual director, who never failed to help me shift my view of any situation to see it through the eyes of Christ. Thanks to the two of them, I can usually dig myself out of overwhelming situations before I reach the meltdown zone.
I’ve gained a great perspective on how to parse through complicated situations, the details of which I once wrote up here. But I realized recently (when I found myself in over my head yet again) that the most important addition to my life toolkit is what I think of as the Burnout Emergency Gas Mask. If you were in a room that was filling with toxic gas, the first thing you’d do is put on a gas mask. You’d do it immediately, without any further analysis, to preserve your health and give you some breathing room (literally) so that you could calmly evaluate the situation and make prudent decisions about what to do next. Through my husband and my spiritual director, I’ve learned a set of steps to take when I begin feeling overwhelmed that function the same way: If I do them immediately, without any further analysis, the process gives me the breathing room to collect my thoughts so that I can make prudent decisions about how to remedy the situation.
Since we’re approaching prime burnout season with the Fall in full swing and the holidays just around the corner, I thought I’d share what I’ve learned:
The 4-Step Burnout Gas Mask
1. Get your physical environment in order
I find it to be critical to do this step first. I used to think that a messy environment didn’t bother me at all, but I’ve come to believe that living in chaos is objectively bad for the spiritual life. When I’m feeling overwhelmed, it goes a long way toward bringing me peace simply to get my house in order. I don’t mean achieving Martha Stewart levels of perfection, but just clearing out obvious piles of clutter and wiping off messy surfaces to get things looking basically orderly. (And yes, I turn to Fly Lady when I need inspiration in this department.) In situations where the whole house seems to be out of control and it makes me even more stressed to imagine dealing with all of this, I focus only on the kitchen and the bedroom: Waking up to a tidy room and making breakfast in a clean kitchen invariably gets the next day off to a much better start, no matter what else is going wrong.
2. Get some sleep
One of my husband’s biggest mantras is, “Don’t think about your problems when you’re tired.” I need to have this tattooed on my hand so I never forget it. As I’ve said before, I’ve been known to reason my way into believing that the entire universe is falling apart at the seams when I’m tired, only to find that I have a completely different perspective after a good night of sleep. Especially if you haven’t been getting good sleep for a long period of time, pull every single string available to you to make this happen. Even one solid night of catchup sleep can give you an explosion of energy.
3. Pray — preferably outside of the house
We should, of course, pray without ceasing. I know that when I’m overwhelmed, I toss up all sorts of scatter-brained prayers asking God for assistance (and, okay, making sure that he is aware of JUST HOW TERRIBLE everything is that I’m dealing with). However, in order to truly “put on the mind of Christ,” I need to shut the door on everything else that’s going on in my life, and give the Lord my full attention. In particular, I find it to be critical that I actually follow the A.C.T.S. model of prayer (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, then Supplication); otherwise I tend to blather on and on about what I want God to help me with as if he’s my personal assistant, rather than listening for what he may be trying to tell me.
Also, it doesn’t work well if I try to do this at home. When I feel like I’m surrounded by chaos, it’s super helpful to pray outside of the house at least once, either in our church or at the Adoration chapel. If I try to do one of these “gas mask” prayer sessions at home, my prayers tend to go something like, “Lord, I praise you for your...laundry! Who knocked over that basket of laundry that I just spent an hour folding?!?!”
4. Talk through it
After I’ve gotten my house (or at least my bedroom and kitchen) in order, gotten a good night’s sleep, and spent some time in focused prayer, the final thing I need to do in order to set a path forward is to talk through everything with my husband or a close friend. I note from much experience that it is important to make this the last step, otherwise I tend to initiate the conversations with proclamations about how horrible everything is, then ramble for a while with an incoherent series of aimless, self-pitying statements. And, like with prayer, it’s also important to carve out time for this conversation so that both of us are calm, and so we’re not interrupted a bunch of times. (In other words: When I catch my husband at work when he’s late for a client meeting and I’m shouting over the sounds of five screaming kids, it tends not to be a very fruitful discussion.) But when we actually do have time to have a positive, focused discussion, it can work wonders for helping me test what I’ve discerned in prayer, think through new possibilities, and come up with a clear plan to bring peace back into my life.
So those are my four “gas mask” steps that I take as soon as I catch the first whiff of burnout in my life. What are your tips for when you’re feeling overwhelmed?
A good nickname for me would be “Inertia,” because, like the dictionary definition of the word, I tend to “exist in a state of rest or uniform motion in a straight line, unless that state is changed by an external force.”
If my choice is accepting an invitation to go to an interesting social event or continuing to sit in front of my computer, I’ll choose the latter. If I had an idea for a new way to decorate the living room, I wouldn’t do it, even if I had the time or money. In other words, left to my own devices, I tend to do nothing.
As usual, it almost always comes down to fear. I have this personality quirk where I’m always worried about doing the wrong thing and screwing something up, so I find it easier to avoid change, even if it means missing out on good opportunities. (This is also one of the reasons I have such trouble with decision making in general; if I order a cheeseburger at a restaurant, for example, I’m immediately plagued with the thought, WHAT IF I SHOULD HAVE ORDERED THE SHRIMP INSTEAD?!?! Yeah. It’s hard to be me.)
Anyway, I’ve had this tendency my whole life. But then, earlier this year I discovered a book. And everything changed.
It started when Brandon Vogt left this comment to my post asking for book recommendations. He raved about Donald Miller’s memoir A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, listing all the changes he and his family had made after Miller’s book had prompted them to wonder how they could turn their life into a great story (which now has included building a computer lab in Africa). Intrigued, I read the book.
It begins with Miller stuck in a funk after writing his smash bestseller, Blue Like Jazz. He’d written a couple of other books that didn’t do so well, and his life was at a standstill. Then he got a call from some producers who wanted to make a movie out of Blue Like Jazz; and since it was a memoir, that means they’d be making a movie of his life. A Million Miles in a Thousand Years is the chronicle of what he learned in the process. Two guys named Steve and Ben came out to write the screenplay with him, and in one of the book’s first scenes, Steve mentions that they’ll need to take some liberties with his story in order to make it a good movie. Don asked why they couldn’t just use the facts of his real life. Steve replies:
Steve sat thoughtfully and collected his ideas. He scratched his chin and collected some sympathy. “In a pure story,” he said like a professor, “there is a purpose in every scene, in every line of dialogue. A movie is going somewhere.”
That last line rang in my ear like an accusation. I felt defensive, as though the scenes in my life weren’t going anywhere. I mean, I knew they weren’t going anywhere, but it didn’t seem okay for someone else to say it. I didn’t say anything; I tried to think about the philosophy of making movies so my face would look like I was thinking about something other than the fact that Steve didn’t think my life was going anywhere.
This prompted him to start asking: What does a great story look like? What would my life look like if it were an amazing story? He writes:
In creating the fictional Don, I was creating the person I wanted to be, the person worth telling stories about. It never occurred to me that I could re-create my own story, my real life story, but in an evolution I had moved toward a better me. I was creating someone I could live through, the person I’d be if I redrew the world, a character that was me but flesh and soul other. And flesh and soul better too.
He learns a lot about what it means to live a great story, but the lesson that most resonated with me was the one about fear. There’s never been an Academy Award winning movie about someone who lived his life cowering in fear, never taking action because he’s worried about messing something up.
The great stories go to the ones who don’t give in to fear.
The most often repeated commandment in the Bible is “Do not fear.” It’s in there over two hundred times. That means a couple of things, if you think about it. It means we are going to be afraid, and it means we shouldn’t let fear boss us around. Before I realized we were supposed to fight fear, I thought of fear as a subtle suggestion in our subconscious designed to keep us safe, or more important, keep us from getting humiliated. And I guess it serves that purpose. But fear isn’t only a guide to keep us safe; it’s also a manipulative emotion that can trick us into living a boring life.
This was a profound insight for me. Reading of Don’s metamorphosis from couch potato to a risk-taking man of action inspired me to do the same in my own life. My decision-making flowchart used to begin with the question, Is there any risk involved? And if I could imagine the slightest thing that could go wrong, I usually wouldn’t do it. Now I begin with the question, Would it make a good story? And if the answer is yes, I usually do it.
Obviously, asking ourselves if it would make a good story is not the only litmus test we should use for decision-making. We need to consider if it’s prudent, if it’s God’s will, etc. And, as Brandon points out in one of his (excellent) posts on the book, we need to make sure we’re living our story with God, not seeing him as an uninterested editor. But incorporating that question into my thought process has changed my life. Stories inevitably contain both ups and downs, challenges as well as triumphs, and thinking of it this way has helped me get over my fear of making mistakes. Rather than thinking of a risk that didn’t pay off as the end of the world, I now see it as just another part of the story.
Don Miller rewrote his life story by searching for his father and asking a cute girl he barely knew to hike the Inca Trail with him in Peru. What would it look like for me, a suburban housewife with five young kids, to live a great story?
I’ve started saying yes to more social invitations. When I’m pretty sure God is calling me to do something, I just do it, without the usual detour down Overanalysis Lane that leads me to talk myself out of it. I’m less likely to decide to do something out of guilt alone, so I’m better at saying no when I need to. Ironically, it’s made me take myself less seriously (in a good way), since thinking of the events of my life as part of a grander story helps put them all in perspective.
What I learned from this book was to not let fear hold me back; to think big; to expand the scope of what I believe it’s possible for one person to accomplish. I’ve learned to put 100% of myself into every moment, and to let go of worries about whether everything will turn out perfectly.
At the end of the book, Miller talks about a great movie he once saw about a real football team. To his surprise, the screenwriters chose to cover the year they almost won the state championship game, rather than the year they did win it. The screenwriters understood that that year they lost was the better story, because that was the time the team had tried hardest and sacrificed most. As Miller points out: It’s not necessary to win for the story to be great; it’s only necessary to sacrifice everything.
I’m reading the astoundingly good book God’s Smuggler, which is the memoir of a Dutch Protestant missionary who smuggled Bibles behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. At its core, the book is all about trusting God. On almost every page there is some example of how God comes through when we place 100% of our trust in him and hold nothing back.
One of the most interesting parts of the book for me was when the author, Andrew van der Bijl (a.k.a. Brother Andrew), talks about a unique type of missionary school he attended in Scotland. As Brother Andrew explains, this school didn’t set up traditional church missions: they didn’t wait until they had money or even had sources of funds secured in order to start a mission. “If they thought God wanted a man in a certain place, they sent him there and trusted God to worry about the details,” he writes.
At the two-year school the students studied theology, homiletics, world religion, linguistics, as well as practical skills that could aid native people in need, like brick laying, plumbing, building huts out of palm fronds and crafting mud jars that can hold water. But here’s where it gets interesting: they were also given a crash course in trust.
Students were sent out on several local missions in which they’d learn to rely on God’s providence in real ways. They were given a one-pound bank note and told to go on a missionary tour through other areas of Scotland. They’d have to pay their own transportation, lodging, and food, as well as any expenses related to mission work such as event refreshments and location rental for meetings. And there’s more: they were not allowed to ask for collections or even mention money at their prayer services or at any other time. Though they were allowed to accept gifts, they could not specifically ask anyone for anything. And they had to pay back the pound note at the end of the trip.
The stories of how God provided for their missionary work are just astounding. Here’s one of my favorites:
Brother Andrew and his friends had had a successful meeting with some young people in Edinburgh, and they suddenly felt prompted to invite them to a tea party the next day, despite the fact that they had none of the materials people would expect for a proper tea (cake, bread, butter, cups…even the tea itself) and they had no money. Without being asked, the invitees volunteered to bring almost all of the ingredients, down to the plates and cups. But Brother Andrew and the other missionaries still didn’t have cake, an absolute requirement for a tea party in Scotland. He recounts what happened next:
That night in our evening prayer time, we put the matter before God. “Lord, we’ve got ourselves into a spot. From somewhere we’ve got to get a cake. Will you help us?” [...]
Morning arrived. We half expected a heavenly messenger to come to our door bearing a cake. But no one came. The morning mail arrived. We ripped open the two letters, hoping for money. There was none. A woman from a nearby church came by to see if she could help. “Cake,” was on the tip of all our tongues, but we swallowed the word and shook our heads.
“Everything,” we assured her, “is in God’s hands.”
The tea had been announced for four o’clock in the afternoon. At three the tables were set, but we still had no cake. Three-thirty came. We put on water to boil. Three-forty-five.
And then the doorbell rang.
All of us together ran to the big front entrance, and there was the postman. In his hand was a large box.
“Hello, lads,” said the postman. “Got something for you that feels like a food package.” He handed the box to one of the boys. “The delivery day is over, actually,” he said, “but I hate to leave a perishable package overnight.”
We thanked him profusely, and the minute he closed the door the boy solemnly handed me the box. “It’s for you, Andrew. From a Mrs. William Hopkins in London.”
I took the package and carefully unwrapped it. Off came the twine. Off came the brown outside paper. Inside, there was no note — only a large white box. Deep in my soul I knew that I could afford the drama of lifting the lid slowly. As I did, there, in perfect condition, to be admired by five sets of wondering eyes, was an enormous, glistening, moist, chocolate cake.
Neat, huh? And that’s one of the less amazing stories at Providence at work for Brother Andrew and the other missionaries — I chose this one because I didn’t want to spoil any of the real jaw droppers for those of you who plan to read the book (which is everyone, I hope!)
While he was still at the missionary school, Brother Andrew had begun to worry about having enough tuition money to get to graduation, and this brought him to a turning point in his relationship with God. While taking a long walk one night, he pondered his stress about where the funds would come from for him to do this work he was sure God wanted him to do. And he realized:
The question was not one of money at all. What I was worried about was a relationship.
At the chocolate factory [where he worked before going to missionary school], I trusted Mr. Ringers to pay me in full and on time. Surely I said to myself, if an ordinary factory worker could be financially secure, so could one of God’s workers.
I turned through the gate at the school. Above me was the reminder “Have Faith in God.”
That was it! It wasn’t that I needed the security of a certain amount of money, it was that I needed the security of a relationship.
I walked up the crunchy pebblewalk feeling more and more certain that I was on the verge of something exciting. The school was asleep and quiet. I tiptoed upstairs and sat by the bedroom window looking out over Glasgow. If I were to give my life as a servant of the King, I had to know that King. What was He like? In what way could I trust him? In the same way I trusted a set of impersonal laws? Or could I trust him as a living leader, as a very present commander in battle? The question was central. Because if He were a King in name only, I would rather go back to the chocolate factory. I would remain a Christian, but I would know that my religion was only a set of principles, excellent and to be followed, but hardly demanding devotion.
Suppose on the other hand that I were to discover God to be a Person, in the sense that He communicated and cared and loved and led. That was something quite different. That was the kind of King I would follow into any battle.
And that, in essence, is what Brother Andrew learned in all these exercises of trust he went through at his missionary school: that God is not a King in name only. He is a present leader, here among us, leading each of us in battle at each moment. Once Brother Andrew internalized this truth, his life was never the same again, and he set off on a mission that would change the lives of countless people across the world.
As I reflect on this idea of trusting God as an active, involved leader rather than a set of impersonal principles, I keep thinking, “I need to go to Trust School!” I think it would be good for someone like me to have an experience like Brother Andrew’s, where I was forced to stop trying to control every single thing and actually put real trust in the Lord. Naturally, I keep fixating on the idea of spending a week at some faraway “trust bootcamp,” but I know that that’s just me avoiding taking real action again. Something tells me that I’m already in Trust School, but I’ve been sleeping through the classes.
So how do I wake up to a more clear understanding of God as a real leader, whom I can trust with matters both large and small? That’s the question that’s been fascinating me lately, one that I’ll probably be writing about more. But meanwhile, what do you think? How can we transform daily life into Trust School?