Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Seashells, Dolphins, and Roses, Oh My!

A friend was recently walking down the beach. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw movement in the water. Repeatedly. Finally, he caught a glimpse of a dolphin that was swimming along in the water at the exact same pace he was walking along the beach. He walked and walked, and (rightfully so) found it quite striking that the dolphin was staying right with him. Finally, he came to a stopping point and another beach walker had noticed, and the two of them looked out and noticed that there were several dolphins out there instead of just one. The two stood for a moment, marveling at God's creation as the dolphins played and swam with each other.

Then, my friend noticed that there were people nearby who were combing the beach for seashells. It struck him that a seashell is most often a former home for a (possible former) living thing. It's a relic, once we get it in our baskets or bags, and while sometimes beautiful, and sometimes sentimental or associated with a good memory, is basically a skeleton. The seashell searchers continued to search for seashells, oblivious to the mammals frolicking in the water nearby. My friend realized that in life, we spend far too much of our time concentrating on unmoving, formerly-important skeletons and not nearly as much of our time marveling in the beauty of God's work.

I recently had the opportunity to discuss burnout with a few friends. I think burnout is something almost everyone (see the section below about never being burnt out) goes through in various parts of our lives. We probably all have some part of our life in which we do NOT experience burnout, but I think most everyone has experienced burnout at some time or other in various parts of our life. In times of burnout, I think we are heads-down, focusing on bones and not eyes-up, marveling at life.

What am I like when I'm experiencing burnout?
I guess that's an important question because if I cannot define burnout in my own life, I probably cannot take any steps toward fixing it...or more importantly, avoiding it. For ME, burnout is marked by a very BLAH feeling in general or more often a very BLAH feeling specifically about a certain part of my routine. Complacency, lack of passion, lack of energy, negativity... just blah. When I consistently have those kinds of emotions or take those kinds of perspectives toward some part of me, it's usually a sign of burnout. And I THINK I've determined what, in my life, causes me to become burnt out. A lot of people assume when I've been burnt out on work that it's because of my long hours or the extremely high expectations of my work... and while that's a factor that probably multiplies the feelings of burnout, it's not the main factor....

Why do I get burnout to begin with?
When I'm burnt out on something, I think it's because I temporarily forget what I'm passionate about. I lose touch with my passion in general or my passion about something I habitually do or participate in. Because I fail to keep touching my passion, I start just going through the motions. I fail to stop and smell the roses. I can't see the forest for the trees. I get stuck in the box. I forget to Seize the Day, or the Moment... My joy diminishes and I communicate that clearly to those I spend time with. In those times in my life I've really been burnt out with work, my wife knew well before I did. That tells me I wear it on my sleeve when I'm blah. Catching this early is important, because it's so easy to get back on track, if you realize that you're off. And I think SOMETIMES it may not be RIGHT (with a capital R) to get back on that same track, but that's a different note, different day.

How do I fix it when this happens?
The only answer to this question which works FOR ME is to force myself to get back in touch with my passion. If I decide to tough it out, I stay in the box and I continue to ignore the forest and complain about all the trees. I have to hit the great pause button of life temporarily, go back to the TIVOd version of what was working, and then unpause in a new direction or new speed or with new eyes. Lately I have been made aware of my ability to have a great effect on my own level of engagement (one way I define burnout is "lack of engagement") simply by the attitude I have and by my willingness to attend to the things in life I'm passionate about. I have found something related to work which I LOVE (training), and being empowered and enabled to remain in focus with that might create a situation in which my level of engagement at work -- which is astronomically high a lot of the time anyway -- can remain at a consistently higher level than it would be without that.

What's it mean to never be burnt out?
You know those people? The ones who are always so happy, who everyone gravitates toward, who live a seemingly carefree life, who exude Godly JOY? Not people who are condescendingly easy-going. The ones who literally just seem to let everything roll off their shoulders. Who honor you with their presence. Who are people-magnets. They're around, if rare. I believe with everything in me that I have the ability to BECOME one of those people, and that it comes a result of 1> My willingness to make sure I am in a situation in which I can remain in touch with my passions; and 2> My willingness to keep my Difference Maker (attitude) in check when those times come when I stray from that; and 3> My commitment to the generosity factor. Sharing my knowledge, resources, and passions with others increases the likelihood that I will be exposed to a lot less "stinkin' thinkin'" as Dan Cathy says it. It also just feels good.

Maxwell, in my Leadership Bible, says that leaders feel burnout when they pay out huge emotional expenses without replenishing their inner person. Same difference. He lifts up as an example Elijah the prophet (1 Kings). He says Elijah spent so much of his time and energy as a prophet without replenishing, and the consequences for Elijah were astounding. Isolation, paranoia, exhaustion, hiding, self-pity, depression, a messiah complex, and emptiness were Elijah's reward for ignoring his need for self-replenishment. Elijah, Maxwell says, because he was emotionally spent, was a fabulous servant, but a poor leader.

I've mentioned in several notes about how much smarter and more in-touch my kids are then I was at their age and at times than I am now. I'll give you a fine example. After I started composing this note, and before I finished it, it became lunchtime. My middle child nominated my oldest child to say the blessing. Usually the middle child claims that right for herself and does a darned fine job of it. But the oldest, we'll call her "S," is a very thoughtful pray-er who surprises me consistently with the things she asks from God during her prayers at night and during mealtime blessings. S's prayer at lunch set in concrete for me the need we all have in our lives to avoid burnout. In her own childlike way, S asked God to help us all remain in touch with our blessings. I'll close this note with part of her prayer.

"God, please help us remember to have fun while we do the things you command us to do."

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