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?
Remember my little mention last week that a film crew is coming to capture my every move this Wednesday? My remorse has only grown deeper, my despair more multi-layered, my impending sense of doom more distinct (I now hear the Jaws theme every time I look at that day on the calendar). As of yesterday afternoon, I’d decided that my decision to agree to this must have been a subconscious attempt to get in the Guinness Book of World Records for the WORST IDEA EVER category.
Yesterday evening I caught a glimpse of my face in the mirror, and my haggard appearance only reminded me of how very tired, achy and…tired I feel. I looked around the house at all the clutter that’s not going to be cleared out as planned, the holes in the wall that we don’t have the time or energy to fix, the stains in the carpet that will continue to look like a failed modern art experiment was done in my living room. And, most disturbingly, I thought of how I’d huffed and puffed through the day, constantly needing to rest. For a million dollars I couldn’t have pretended to be peppy and positive. And THIS is what is going to be held out as the life of a person of faith?!
After freaking out to a friend, freaking out to my husband, freaking out on Twitter (and, umm, then getting distracted and wasting a bunch of time online), it finally occurred to me to pray. And so I did, and, whatddaya know, it actually calmed me down and gave me a sense of clarity. Almost immediately, the thought occurred to me:
Maybe all that is the point!
Maybe it is exactly in God’s plan that my life would be documented when I don’t have things perfectly under control. Because it’s the only way to highlight what I believe is the biggest visible difference in my life since my conversion: my joy.
If a film crew had wanted to shoot a day in my life eight years ago, it would have been no trouble to present a very appealing image. They could have shown me whipping together a breakfast at 10:00 AM in my downtown loft, using the $10 carton of uber-organic omega-3 free range Himalayan eggs I’d bought at Whole Foods. Then a workout in the building gym with my personal trainer, a walk down Congress Avenue to meet with one of my freelance clients, a stop at Starbucks for a latte, and then back at the loft to meet with the staff we’d hired for one of our summer parties that was to take place on the beautiful rooftop deck that night.
Contrast that to the footage they’ll get tomorrow with me looking as tired as I feel, pregnant with my fifth kid in six years, in a cramped (and messy) house in the ‘burbs where the sounds of screaming are as frequent as the ominous smells of diapers in need of changing. No question, my life is harder now. There is less comfort and more suffering (to use the term loosely), a whole lot less luxury and a whole lot more sacrifice.
Am I happier now? On the whole, absolutely, yes. However, if you were to have polled me on a minute-to-minute basis in 2003 with the question “Are you happy right now?” and conducted the same poll on a minute-to-minute basis last week, I would probably answer in the affirmative less often now than I did then (if nothing else, about half the time my current answer would be, “I CAN’T HEAR YOU BECAUSE EVERYONE IS SCREAMING.”) I am pushed to my limit more often these days than back when I was an atheist.
But here, I believe, is the metric that really matters: Do I have more joy now than I did then? And that’s where the contrast is off the charts.
Joy is something different than happiness, and it’s a whole lot different than surface-level pleasure or physical comfort. It’s something divine in origin, not subject to the ups and downs of human emotions, a kind of ecstatic contentment and explosive peace that can only come from contact with the Source of all life and love himself. I may have more challenges now than I used to, but they also don’t bother me as much as they would have before. When I would be in a mildly bad mood in my old life, it was like my discontent would sink right down to my bones. There was nothing to pad my soul, so even the slightest bumps in the road would rattle me to the core of my being. Now it’s like my soul is bubble-wrapped with joy. Even on the worst day, there’s only so much that my worldly circumstances can get me down. Sure, I still notice and feel and dislike the bad emotions, but they no longer have the power over me that they once did, because underneath it all, where there was once nothingness, there is now joy.
It’s a beautiful thing. But here’s the catch: the more intimately we know Christ, the more joy we’ll have…but Christ is the very embodiment of self-sacrifice, of pouring out oneself for the sake of others. In other words, going to fancy meetings in skyscrapers and driving a nice car and hosting luxurious parties are probably not going to bring you a whole lot of joy. But living a life ordered toward the service of others will. So, even though I have a long way to go in the selflessness department, I make a whole lot more sacrifices for others now than I did before my conversion. And I’m not joyful in spite of that fact, but because of it.
The more I think about this, the more ready I feel to welcome those cameras tomorrow. I think I’m okay with my life being documented the way it really is. Because, if it all goes well, they’ll end up showing a hugely pregnant woman waddling around her not-super-clean house, sometimes getting frustrated with all the chaos, walking past old pictures of herself where she was obviously thinner and richer, and it will be the story of someone who has learned that life doesn’t have to be easy to be joyful.
Now that I’m visibly pregnant, I get asked more and more often for a detailed plan of how many more children I’ll have and when I’ll be “done.” Much of the time, “Congratulations” is swiftly followed by one of the following questions:
- “So, is this the last one?”
- “How many more are you going to have?!”
- “When are you going to be done?”
These are usually well-intended statements, expressed out of a concern for me. An old friend whose youngest just started kindergarten said to me the other day, “I don’t know how you hang on not knowing when you’ll be done with the baby phase. Aren’t you just dying for the days when you don’t have to deal with sippy cups and strollers and wiping noses?” She pointed out that it’s so much easier when all of your kids are old enough to do most things for themselves. “You don’t want to spend the rest of your life changing diapers, do you?” she wanted to know.
In terms of my bad character traits, my selfishness is surpassed only by my laziness. Also, though I love my babies and toddlers, I connect better with older kids. I’m not a “baby person” and always breathe a sigh of relief when each kid turns four. And I’ve been changing diapers every day for six years now — much of that time with three kids in diapers at once. So yeah. My gut reaction is that it sounds pretty nice not to have to deal with all the extra work that babies and toddlers require.
But to buy into that mentality, the idea that I would be happier and my life would be better if I could just do whatever I want all the time, would be to fall back into the spiritual morass I found myself in before my conversion to Christianity.
As I’ve said many times before, one of the most shocking truths I discovered when I converted to Christianity was that autonomy is not the path to happiness. The golden calf that I spent most of my life worshiping turned out to be a dead idol. I always thought that the secret to a fantastic life was to optimize on getting as much autonomy as possible so that I could do whatever pleased me, whenever I felt like doing it. Boy was I surprised when I found out that that kind of life left me amused but not deeply happy, and that the only source of real happiness — of joy — is God. And you only need to glance at a crucifix to be reminded that God is the God of self-sacrifice.
Through Christianity, I discovered the secret formula for that fantastic life I always wanted: be other-focused at the macro level, and self-focused at the micro level. Of course we each need to make regular time for rest and relaxation — and women especially need to be careful not to run themselves ragged by never taking time to recharge their own batteries. But the overall purpose of life is to serve. And the closer you get to God, the more he’s going to set you up with opportunities for some serious self-sacrificial service.
So that’s why, as lazy as I am, I kind of shrug when people ask if I’m anxious to be done changing diapers. With what I’ve seen of the Christian life so far, I presume that as soon as my last kid is out of diapers, God will simply send more opportunities for intimate, challenging service my way. Maybe one of our parents will become ill and need us to take care of them. Maybe a relative will need to move in with us. Maybe we’ll be called to take in foster children or volunteer with the homeless. Heck, given our current track record, I wouldn’t be surprised if our oldest children start having kids around the time our youngest is finally potty trained — and then a whole new cycle of diaper changing will begin again!
“Changing diapers” has become the ultimate symbol of the sort of intimate service that leads to a lack of autonomy — which is probably why our culture makes people feel so anxious to be done with it. It’s also why I’m ambivalent about it: it’s just another form of service, which is what the Christian life is all about. So maybe it won’t literally involve Huggies and baby wipes, but yeah, if I am to make the most of my time here on earth, I do assume that I’ll spend the rest of my life changing diapers.
- My answer to “Do you want more children?”
- On being tired
- Admitting that I can’t do it all…or even half of it