Edna St. Vincent Millay once said, "My candle burns at both ends; It will not last the night."
Setting the world on fire comes with risks. Unfortunately we usually don't realize this until smoke gets in our eyes.
Burnout is a condition caused by unbalance: too much work or responsibility, too little time to do it, over too long a period. We've been cruising in the fast lane but we've been running on fumes rather than on fuel. Often we think that burnout is something that just happens to other women-to workaholics and perfectionists. But careaholics are also at risk-women who care deeply about their children, work, relationships, parents, siblings, friends, communities, issues. This sounds like every woman I know. Perhaps we would pay more attention to burnout if it were as dramatic as a heart attack. But a smoldering flame can be just as deadly as a flash fire.
Sometimes burnout manifests itself as a sense of complete exhaustion at the end of a project that has taken months of challenging and intense work. Taking a week off to rest, then resuming work at a slower pace is usually enough to bring about a speedy recovery. But first-degree burnout-the soul snuffer-comes from living unbalanced for years; when what was supposed to be a temporary situation becomes a lifestyle.
Burnout often begins with illness-anything from a bout of flu you can't shake to chronic fatigue syndrome-and is usually accompanied by depression. Sometimes burnout is hard to distinguish from a creative dry spell, especially if you're good at denial, which most women are.
It's burnout when you go to bed exhausted every night and wake up tired every morning-when no amount of sleep refreshes you, month after weary month. It's burnout when everything becomes too much effort; combing your hair, going out to dinner, visiting friends for the weekend, even going on vacation. It's burnout when you find yourself cranky all the time, bursting into tears or going into fits of rage at the slightest provocation. It's burnout when you dread the next phone call. It's burnout when you feel trapped and hopeless, unable to dream, experience pleasure, or find contentment. It's burnout when neither big thrills nor little moments have the power to move you- when nothing satisfies you because you haven't a clue what's wrong or how to fix it. Because everything's wrong. Because something is terribly out of whack; you. It's burnout when you feel there is not one other person on the face of the earth who can help you.
And you're right.
When you're suffering from burnout, you are the only person on earth who can help because you're the only one who can make the lifestyle changes that need to be made; to call a halt, to take a slower path, to make a detour. When you have no strength left, you have no choice but to rely on the strength of a saner power to restore you to wholeness. In the pursuit of our souls, spirit takes no prisoners.
Henry David Thoreau didn't set out to become the patron saint of simplicity. Actually, he sought a job as highway surveyor with the city of Concord, Massachusetts, in order to support his meager earnings as a writer. For years he had been the de facto keeper of passable paths around the town and the public had testified to the quality of his work. Nonetheless, the town officers declined to pay him a salary for his efforts. Packing his pens, bottles of ink, and paper, the would-be municipal employee borrowed an axe and headed for Walden Pond to conduct an experiment with life.
A century and a half later, Thoreau's experiment, reinterpreted for the 1990s, is called "downshifting," a word coined by business writer Amy Saltzman. It describes the emergence of a new breed of workplace trendsetters who are no longer willing to allow their work to ride roughshod over their lives. Like Thoreau, these career professionals are choosing not to keep pace with their fast-track peers. By setting career limits, they're slowing down in order to devote more time and creative energy to their families, communities, and personal needs. Saltzman documented the different ways in which these enlightened pathfinders have found authentic success in her thought provoking book Downshifting; Reinventing Success on a Slower Track.
Saltzman began tracking the downshifting trend in the late 1980s while working in New York as a senior editor at Success magazine. At the same time she was wrestling with maintaining some control over her own life while meeting the "intellectual and creative challenges of helping a young publication take hold in a competitive field." But she explains in her book; "I found myself feeling increasingly ill at ease with the message of a magazine that typically defined success in narrow, self-interested terms."
Then a chance encounter with a friend who was working as an editor for another magazine solidified Saltzman's misgivings about the fast track. As her friend assumed a "Gotta run, I'll call you, we'll do lunch" pose before dashing off down Madison Avenue, she inquired how Saltzman was doing. Saltzman told her friend that "things were fine, work was interesting, although I wasn't allowing it to take over my life; I was doing volunteer work a few evenings a week, reading a lot and working on a short story that I didn't think would ever get published but was enjoying it anyway."
This laissez-faire attitude baffled her friend, Saltzman recalls, because she was "unable to grasp the idea that I wasn't particularly busy at work and enjoying it." But Saltzman had made "a conscious decision to take life a little slower." In fact, she'd deliberately not gone after a promotion because she knew the job would eat up too many evenings and weekends. "Besides, while it might have looked impressive, I wasn't sure the position suited me at that point in my life. The decision, however, had not been made lightly and had continued to nag at me. When I saw my friend, I realized why. If we weren't always moving ahead and aiming for something higher and more impressive, if we didn't have that look of constantly being busy and in motion, we were somehow boring or even losers."
But no matter what her life might have looked like to an outsider, the reality of Saltzman's decision to take things more slowly was that her "life felt fuller, more interesting and more worthwhile than I could ever remember." By slowing down, Amy Saltzman discovered that "the fast track shackles us to a set of standards and rules that prohibit us from leading truly successful, happy lives."
I guess this is a very long, roundabout way of saying that I'm burnt out and have decided to downshift my own life. For the past couple years I've been given signs. Almost every day I've been given an indication that it's time to let something go but I've chased those indications away with Aspirin, or swigs of Pepto Bismul. I've chased them right into a bleeding ulcer. But this is it. I've been given the opportunity to live this life only once- and I really do feel like it's dissolving away right in front of me. I am sick. I don't have enough energy to experience the mother/child relationship I so craved when I started this chapter in my life. I'm beginning to feel buried. I'm losing the ability to laugh and keep from being offended. I am so busy that I don't know where to start. So after a lot of tears, anxiety, fear, guilt, sadness, and finally resolve- Trenton and I have decided that I'm going to stop teaching- for now. And with this decision, I feel such a warm, golden sense of peace.
Quotes from Simple Abundance by Sarah Ban Breathnach