Today is the last Sunday in our Blessed Are The Crazy series – we’ve tackled anxiety, difficult relationships, trauma and healing, faith and doubt, and the ways even everyday things can be overwhelming.
And the thread, throughout all of these discussions on mental health and wellness, has been compassion. Folks with mental health concerns deserve dignity and care, just like the rest of humanity, because they’re made in God’s image – and we are called to compassionate people.
But what happens when our well of compassion dries up? What happens when we just cannot even?
Our Scripture reading for today gives us a slightly different perspective on caring for ourselves while we also care for others.
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 3:1-9
And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarrelling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, ‘I belong to Paul’, and another, ‘I belong to Apollos’, are you not merely human?
What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.
As we noted a few weeks ago, at the time they received this letter from Paul, the church in Corinth was divided into factions: some declared themselves followers of this disciple or that teacher or this apostle, and some just threw up their hands and said “I’m here to follow Jesus, not some other guy.”
And Paul is quite obviously frustrated with them and their bickering with each other. He spends probably the first half of this letter reminding them why he came in the first place: not to set up a following for himself, but to grow a community dedicated to living and loving in the way of Jesus.
So he runs with that metaphor of growing and growing up: he says “when I was with you, I wasn’t giving you the steak and potatoes stuff – because you were like spiritual infants, you couldn’t handle all of that – so I gave you the absolute basics.”
Unfortunately, though, they hadn’t grown beyond that in Paul’s absence – they got stuck arguing over whether pureed peas or pureed carrots were better.
But rather than throw up his hands and say “you’re hopeless!”, he keeps pressing on. He goes back to the basics. He meets them where they are, again, and reminds everybody (including himself) that he can till and weed and plant the seeds, and someone else can come along and water and tend them, but none of these people are ultimately responsible for their growth – that’s God’s job.
Anyone who works with people in any capacity – teachers, first responders, nurses, doctors, counselors, social workers, and even the folks who volunteer with various helping ministries or other things – I think all of these people are intimately familiar with what Paul is feeling here, which is best summed up in contemporary language in one very short sentence:
“Are you kidding me?”
In that spirit, today we’re going to talk about two separate, but related things: the first is burnout, which anyone can experience in almost any setting. The second is is a bit more specific to those who work as helpers in some capacity – it’s called compassion fatigue.
So first, let’s define our terms.
Burnout is what happens when you exhaust yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally by running at 110% of your capacity for too long. You can get burned out working retail. You can get burned out as a college student. You can get burned out doing a job you love. You can get burned out volunteering. It’s less about the type of work, and more about the fact that, whether of your own choosing or because someone else demanded it, you tried to run a marathon at a sprinter’s pace. The symptoms of burnout include anger and cynicism, hopelessness, a consistent lack of energy or motivation, an increase in the use of alcohol or drugs just to get through the week, and physical symptoms like unexplained high blood pressure, headaches, muscle tension, and even a reduced immune system.
Compassion fatigue is a bit more specific: it’s actually a type of secondary trauma from seeing the effects of traumatic events on others. Someone with compassion fatigue might not be in the thick of a disaster or experience violence firsthand, but the medical staff who treat them and see the wounds, the first responders who rush into a scene and hear the stories over and over again, the therapists who spend their days trying to help traumatized people reframe and heal their pain, the teachers who see the bruises and have to make CPS reports – whether it’s immediate and overwhelming or small events that accumulate over time, the effects of seeing people you’re caring for hurt takes a long-term toll.
Compassion fatigue symptoms include a heightened sense of fear or overwhelming anxiety, difficulty sleeping, being preoccupied with others’ suffering even when you’re not working, and a persistent sense of helplessness.
Although there is more and more research being done on both of these phenomena, neither burnout nor compassion fatigue is an actual mental health diagnosis – and these things can very easily overlap with other mental health concerns like depression, anxiety, personality disorders, etc. This also means that there is no ‘standard’ set of symptoms or standard treatment for them – you can’t go to your doctor and say ‘I’m feeling burned out’ and get a prescription for it. (I will note, though, that there are many, many therapists who can help you work through it – so here’s another plug for going to see a trained counselor if you need one.)
But because of all of this good research going on, there is an abundance of information out there on prevention – specifically, building up your mental and emotional resilience and creating healthy habits so you don’t get there at all.
The most common piece of advice actually has biblical roots – but somehow, it’s also the hardest to achieve in today’s world of constant connectivity at your fingertips.
Take a day off.
The Bible calls it ‘sabbath.’ In its most extreme form, sabbath is a day of rest and replenishment – you don’t cook, you don’t do homework, you don’t clean anything, you don’t look at your email or text your boss, you don’t go to work or drive all over God’s green earth running errands. Instead, you spend that time with the people you love – in worship, in prayer, playing games and catching up and telling stories.
Can you imagine? An entire day of just rest.
These days, we’re more fond of the term ‘work-life balance.’ It seems impossible to take an entire day, so we take little moments here and there without slowing down too much.
Our hyper-competitive, constantly-connected world creates this narrative that people who stop to rest are lazy, incompetent, and undeserving of praise or promotions. There is always more to do. That world and all of its excitement don’t stop just because we’re tired.
But there’s a great story out there about a young pastor who sat down for coffee with his mentor – an older pastor who had been working in ministry for decades. The mentor said to the young pastor: “You seem tired. When was the last time you took a day off?”
The young pastor looked at his mentor, and said: “Satan never takes a day off, so neither do I.”
The mentor paused for a moment, as though he was digging deep for some piece of wisdom, and said: “You might want to find a better role model.”
Paul reminds us that we can plant and water, tend and weed, and watch carefully for signs of life in our work – but it’s God who gives the growth. All of our work is participation in God’s great work, and God will never ask us to run ourselves into the ground in order to make that a reality. Keeping the sabbath is actually one of the Ten Commandments! Even Jesus occasionally ran off to the mountains to be alone when folks wanted him to be working, and took naps in the middle of stressful situations.
You can leave work behind and rest, too.
The second-most-common suggestion for building resilience is also a pretty simple practice hidden behind big words. The experts call it ‘compassion satisfaction’ – intentionally remembering the parts of your work that you love, the good you’ve done, the projects you’ve completed, and the people you’ve helped.
In many ways, this is a practice of gratitude – but rather than focus on what you’ve received, you’re giving thanks for the good things you’ve been able to do.
For those of us who have been steeped in the culture of humility and warned again and again against bragging, this might feel uncomfortable at first. But especially for those of us whose work is focused on helping others, it is absolutely essential that we remember and celebrate our successes, rather than focusing all of our energy on the things that went wrong.
One of the best pieces of advice I got from friends and colleagues when I began ministry is to keep a ‘happy folder.’ Instead of just hanging on to all of the complaints and hate mail (which we’re sadly encouraged to do for legal reasons), these folks encouraged me to create a file folder especially for the words of thanks and encouragement I receive.
That way, when we run into one of those weeks where everything seems to be going off the rails at once, I can pull out that folder and remember the best parts of what I get to do every day.
Even without the spiritual components, those two are things that anyone and everyone can and should do to help build up a healthy mind, body, and life.
But I also want to talk a bit about prayer. Most of us don’t get to pray with folks at work – depending on where you are, that could result in lawsuits and all sorts of things. But that doesn’t mean our work life can’t bleed into our prayer life.
When I was a teenager, I ran into a quote from someone that said: “I pray for an hour each day, unless I am very busy. Then, I pray for two hours.”
Even then, with all of my youthful energy, I thought: “how pretentious.”
But more and more, I see a similar habit in myself: the more I have going on, the more time I need to pray through it, to ask for guidance and strength, and to offer up to God the pain and suffering I see in the world every day.
And if you can just sit and talk to God for an hour or two, then awesome. Keep doing that. But when I’m honest, I know that sometimes (especially when things are hard or overwhelming), I don’t have an hour’s worth of words. I have sighs. I have heartache. I have anger and I have questions.
But more and more, I’ve come to appreciate contemplative practices – the ways of praying and being with God that don’t require big, pretty, easy-flowing words.
One of my favorite ways to pray these days is to sit somewhere quiet, cup my hands in my lap, and visualize each thing or person I want to pray for as though they were in my hands. Then, I lift each thing up to God, and let it go – trusting that God knows what they need and will provide it.
Contemplative practices, whatever form they may take, help us experience God’s presence with us.
One scholar of both psychology and theology, Dr. Chuck DeGroat, reminds us how vital this is in his book Wholeheartedness: Busyness, Exhaustion, and Healing the Divided Self.
He defines wholeheartedness as ‘the experience of oneness and worthiness in Christ.’
Not just the thought of it, or an abstract theological idea – but the experience that we are one with Christ, that we are intimately connected with God in this way, and that we are worthy of Christ’s love and compassion for us – not because of what we do, or how ‘good’ we act, but because God said so: it’s who we are.
And perhaps that’s the ultimate reminder for the exhausted, the burned out, and the angry: that we do good things and engage in the work we do because of Christ’s unending and overwhelming love for us – and God never expected us to do it all. No matter how work is going, you can rest in God’s love and care for you.
And that is good news, indeed.