A Spirituality of Burnout

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May 10, 2014 by lucieromarin

Is there a spirituality of burnout? After much wondering, I realised that part of the reason I couldn’t answer the question was that I didn’t know what the expression ‘a spirituality of’ actually meant – if, indeed, it meant anything. It was like books entitled ‘The Philosophy of Football’ or ‘The Philosophy of Hiking’. What does this actually mean? ‘Profound thoughts I have about football’? Or ‘how Aristotelianism relates to football’? And so on.

I suppose we can say there is a spirituality of burnout if we mean the following:

a) if we assume that spiritual burnout doesn’t necessarily mean the end of spirituality,
b) but can represent a transition between two kinds (or degrees, or methods) of spirituality,
c) then, like all sufferings and/or challenges in life, it can be characterised by spiritual exercises and discoveries particular to itself,
d) which means that, ‘a spirituality of burnout’ would mean describing or detailing the causes, effects, exercises and discoveries particular to burnout and recovery.

So, even though it sounds a little bit cheesy, I think it’s important to think of a spirituality of burnout. It matters that religious burnout is part of religious experience, rather the end of it, unless you choose to make it the end of it (if that makes sense). It matters that horrible times can be known to be temporary, rather than permanent, and, even more importantly, it matters that they can be known to be transitions to something better. It’s like the bushfire that destroys your property: you can choose, in your anguish, to salt the earth and walk away, or you can choose to remain, watching for the new life, and learning from the old one. Your rebuilt home can be better-kept and better-prepared…and it might even look prettier and be more comfortable, because the fire has consumed the ugly, inherited furniture and left you free to choose your own décor in your own time. (This is getting to be a convoluted metaphor, but you’ll take my point.)

I’m not saying that burnout or disappointment can be just sort of written off by a series of spiritual platitudes. It means real loss. Recovery can mean being prepared to accept further loss (such as the loss of loved-but-toxic friends).

If I had to write a book about it, the chapter headings would look something like this:

1) Disappointment
2) Envy
3) Anger
4) Grief
5) Things you’ll be tempted to think that are actually wrong
6) Good things to think about yourself and your life
7) Forgiveness
8) Letting go of the past
9) Letting go of people
10) Dealing with other people
11) Dealing with particular situations
12) Prudence
13) Prayer
14) Perseverance
15) Providence
16) Practical Stuff
17) What to Read

That seems pretty thorough!

I’ll tell you one thing. I’ve noticed, now that I have the unspeakable joy of living in my own place – and the tentatively unspeakable joy of a job that I don’t hate – that I haven’t, for one second, thought, “But why did I have to wait so long for this when other people got these things years ago?” These things are just so good in themselves that they push away any need for or habit of envy. I’m not even envious of people who own their own homes. Solitude during mental prayer is so…so plain delicious that that deliciousness makes you forget that it hurt to wait for it.* What do you know? Good-in-itself turns about to be more potent than good-compared-to-other-people’s-good.

This being so, I’m willing to bet that this is the same in all circumstances of life, and that this is why late vocations and young vocations can’t be told apart, because they’re both equally happy. And it’s why parents who have children late in life don’t seem to be walking around embittered by the thought that they didn’t have them any earlier.

*I’m not saying that to sound holy! It’s just that if you’re committed to regular meditation you soon learn to crave a bit of silence. I used to have to try to do my mental prayer with earplugs in, which really wasn’t conducive to contemplation at all.

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