If you are passionate about your work, it never stops. A person whose heart is engaged in the work of observing, analyzing, and healing the world will never be bored, and yet she just might be exhausted. Finding balance is essential, if you want to avoid burnout.
Do you doubt it? This month, towns across the American midwest have been shredded by tornadoes. The Mississippi River is rushing high and fast through Louisiana. Youth with smartphones are showing the world brave peaceful dissent in corners of north Africa and the middle east, and Osama bin Laden is dead. We wonder how any of it changes things. The state legislature is in session. My mailbox has daily requests to petition someone urgently. Hurricane season begins tomorrow.
For some of us, turning away is not an option. Yet this process of bearing witness to struggle takes a toll, whether we are in the chamber of the Health and Welfare Committee, or shoveling sand into bags, or being a therapist, or staring into the stunning, disturbing images splashed across our wide-screens. We share a human need to replenish our hearts, so that we can continue to do the work.
First: give yourself permission to focus, even briefly, on yourself. Introspection is not wasted time.
Second: take note, in the course of your everyday life, of the small brief moments that remind you of why you do what you do. There are small successes that can be easily minimized, when we are driven always toward the next crisis. Savor the small triumphs.
Third: avoid manufactured crises. Marketing geniuses have long since figured out that generating meaningless suspense and anxiety keeps us tuned in: who is this week’s front runner? Which attention-seeking celebrity is going to rehab, to jail, or entertaining a run for the presidency? When there is an endless supply of drama, it is always appropriate to pause and reflect before succumbing. Invite into your life only those optional crises you really want. Bring popcorn.
Fourth: allow interruption. Have a deep encounter with what reliably touches your heart, even if brief. The quick-witted friend. The jazz improvisation. A chocolate filled croissant. Your mom. Your dog. The river, at twilight. Silence. These interruptions are not only restful; they may also give your creative inner life a chance to percolate, and transform your work when you return.
Fifth: gratitude. For a moment, remember that passion for watching the news and doing good in the world connects us to other people, through our shared sense of what matters. The capacity for empathy is powerful, and for the most part we would not be without it. Shared passion can sustain us even when events are slow to unfold, and the way forward seems rocky in the short run.
The work continues eternally. The time we take to breathe is not empty. We call it sabbath.