It’s been a busy few months in my household, and not in the ways I had anticipated.
Rewind to the end of August. I was looking forward to teaching a new course, together with a good friend of mine, and my work was moving ahead well in several areas I care deeply about. I had just ordered a stack of new books, my three sons would be heading back to school soon, and I expected that once the fall harvest was processed, I would have plenty of time to read, write, and think.
And then September hit like the proverbial tonne of bricks.
Within a few short weeks, I discovered I was unexpectedly pregnant, which brought on intense emotional reactions for everyone in our family (not to mention physical fatigue for me). My husband was called in for knee surgery. Since our present home is lacking in bedroom space, we launched into home renovations in preparation for selling. In addition to job and committee stress, several other family issues arose. We had to have our dog put down. This was all on top of normal household activity, which is crazy enough on its own. Just as we felt that things might get back to normal, we found evidence of rats in our house. Apparently, the very dry summer meant that our large compost pile didn’t stay moist enough, making for a bonafide rat buffet.
On one level, I acknowledge that all of these are first-world problems. We have enough resources that an unexpected pregnancy is not disastrous. Medical services here are free and readily available, it’s not a problem to hire an exterminator, and we have friends and family to help us out in every way possible. As a white, middle-class Canadian family, we do not have to deal with systemic racism and prejudice that many of our sisters and brothers do. But still, what had promised to be a season of creativity and productivity instead became a season of stress. Instead of maintaining an outward focus, I have been forced to focus on myself and my immediate family for a while. And so, the books I ordered in August sit unread. Emails I intended to answer remain ignored. Family meals are disrupted, as the kitchen has been in upheaval for weeks. I have stepped back from some committee work, even though I care deeply about the tasks at hand.
As leaders, what do we do when life throws us a curve ball? When we are forced into another season of life before we really feel ready? Sometimes, the change can be physical, and we don’t have the energy to keep moving forward, day after day and month after month. Other times, it is mental or emotional, and we just can’t deal with things anymore. Still other times, physical and emotional fatigue can lead to spiritual despair, when we start to question God’s presence and even (yes, I’ve been here too) God’s existence.
I’m not a therapist or counsellor, and this is not a replacement for their professional advice. However, there are a few things I’ve discovered along the way as I’ve journeyed through seasons of productivity, growth, change, and exhaustion. Slowly but surely, I am learning to see myself as a whole person with a body, mind, heart, and spirit, none of which can dominate the others for any extended length of time. These are the things that get me through.
- Practice what you preach about honesty and authenticity. After a Sunday morning service one day, a friend asked me how I was doing. I automatically responded with a smile and a “Fine”, even while holding back tears. Almost immediately, I regretted it and admitted that no, I wasn’t fine, I was struggling. He gave me a hug and a prayer, and our friendship was strengthened because of it. While this is not always fitting– sometimes as leaders we have to push through until we reach a more appropriate time and place– it is crucial to find people we can confide in, and who will show love even when we are at our worst.
- Don’t be afraid to step back and let others step up. As leaders, it can be easy to give in to the the “Messiah complex”, believing that our way of doing things is the best or the only way. The Messiah complex can creep in without our even realizing it, even as we readily recognize it in others. But there is a reason why we are a Body: in the times we are weak, someone else is strong and ready to prove their mettle.
- Remember that the Church is much bigger than your church. When times are tough, it can help to lean on other Christians from outside your tradition, culture, time, or place. Among others, Julian of Norwich, Brennan Manning, Ruth Padilla DeBorst, and the folks at NAIITS– An Indigenous Learning Community are all reliable guides who just might provide needed perspective without giving pat answers.
- Disconnect from social media and go outside. Social media is a great way to connect with others and to share information. But it can also be draining, especially if your newsfeed, like mine, is filled with reminders of how much work is needed to bring about justice. This doesn’t give us the right to disengage permanently. It does, however, give us permission to learn from the rest of God’s creation, each part of which has its own rhythms and teachings.
- Look for beauty in the arts. Pick up some classic Canadian fiction. Take the time to learn a challenging new piece on the piano or guitar. Spend a few minutes contemplating a masterpiece by Rembrandt or Jackson Pollock. In times of stress, the arts are often the first to go, and yet if we let them, they can replenish our souls in unexpected and unexplained ways.
- Take a nap. Healthy food, sleep, and exercise can go a long way, even– perhaps especially– when we feel like we don’t have the time. God created us with physical bodies for a reason, and when we care for them, we also care for the other parts of our selves– emotional, mental, and spiritual.
- Finally, be patient with yourself and with God. Trees tend to grow the most in the spring and summer. During the fall and winter, they show little outward activity as they wait patiently under the snow. Inwardly, however, their trunks and roots are strengthening and solidifying in preparation for the next season of growth. During one stressful time, Dr. Margaret Munro, the founding Dean of Nursing at UPEI, gave me some good words of widsom. At the time, I was a stay-at-home mom and “professional volunteer”, wanting very badly to return to school but not seeing any way for that to happen. When I griped to Dr. Munro, she suggested that though my days seemed largely unproductive, I was actually doing the practicum for what would become doctoral work. Someday, I would be able to incorporate all of those experiences into something new and fresh. God doesn’t waste anything; I just needed to be patient.
For those of you struggling with exhaustion, whether it be physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual, take a deep breath and hold on.
God isn’t done, and neither are you.
Winter won’t last forever.
Roots are solidifying at this very moment, and soon the maple sap will start to run again.
Spring is on the way.