I’ve had a stressful year at work. And I know that I am not alone. While certainly some of my experiences are unique (returning from maternity leave, the stress of the tenure clock, and the particulars of my institutional context), what I realize as I talk to friends in other universities is that many academics face similar kinds of stresses. And these stresses take their toll on us: emotionally, physically, and spiritually. This post is about some of the lessons I’ve learned in this difficult year. But let me be clear at the outset: I do not have a tidy answer. There is no quick fix. I’m going to tell you about some of the readings and pieces of advice that have helped me, in the hopes that others will find it helpful. These are practices that I am still working on in my own life. During the past semester, I’ve read self-help books by David D. Burns, Katherine Crowley and Kathi Elster, John Gottman, and Brene Brown, as well as more explicitly theological books by Henri Nouwen, Gregory Boyle, Kathleen Norris, James Martin, and Albert Nolan. Here are some of the lessons that have helped me.
Lesson #1: I need to make time to check in with myself and with God.
My first lesson is about slowing down and taking the time to really think about what is going on around me, and paying attention to how I experience God in the ordinary stuff of everyday life. I find that in the midst of a busy semester, I sometimes feel like Dory in Finding Nemo who keeps repeating, “Just keep swimming!”
The problem is that it is easy to ignore the toll that your work is taking on you and on your personal relationships outside of the workplace. I am pretty good at ignoring the warning signs of feeling overwhelmed and pushing myself to do more and more and more. And then I wonder why I wake up with a migraine on Saturday morning. We all have limitations, and it is important that we pay attention to these limitations and accept ourselves and our limitations. It means being realistic when we set goals, forgiving ourselves when we fail to reach goals, and recognizing that in our vulnerability we learn something very valuable about ourselves, others, and about God. We realize that we cannot do it all, we cannot have it all, and we cannot be everything for everyone. There is a sense of empowerment that comes from accepting this reality. Albert Nolan describes the need to let go and put our trust in God. Ultimately his book is about developing “a spirituality of radical freedom.” But he makes an interesting distinction between trusting God and clinging to God:
Trusting God, as Jesus did, does not mean clinging to God; it means letting go of everything so as to surrender ourselves and our lives to God. There is a difference between attachment and surrender. In the end we must become detached from God too. We must let go of God in order to jump into the embrace of a loving Father whom we can trust implicitly. We don’t need to hold on tightly, because we will be held—like a child in the arms of its parents.
There are people who cling to God. They make God into a crutch that they feel they must lean on because they are so wounded. That is understandable enough, and we should never lose our sympathy for such people. But there is a better way. We can let go. We can surrender. We can give ourselves in wild abandonment. We can trust God. Clinging, even clinging to God, is the work of a frightened ego. Surrender and trust come from the depths of our true self. (135).
I have done my fair share of clinging to God. But I get what Nolan means when he says that the better way is to practice trust. How do you practice daily surrender? Have you ever tried the daily examen recommended by St. Ignatius? Or do you prefer centering prayer? The Prayer of St. Francis? A prayer mantra? “Come Holy Spirit” is a favorite of mine. More recently the one that I pray throughout the day is “God, help me!” When I can let go of my superhero complex and trust in God, it reorients my attitude and helps me to be honest with myself. It is easy to fall into patterns of “go go go,” but it is really important to take some time to intentionally slow down.
Lesson #2: I am God’s Beloved.
My identity is shaped in many ways by my job. I think this is true for a lot of people, but it is especially true for those of us who believe that our teaching and scholarship is a vocation, a calling. We are in some way responding to an invitation (“Come follow me”… “Feed my sheep…” “Do you love me?”). Our response is lived out daily in our work with students and in our research.
The danger in collapsing our identity with our employment is that we can start to measure our self-worth according to our achievements at work. I definitely fall into this trap. Re-reading Henri Nouwen’s classic spiritual work, Life of the Beloved, always helps me to remember that one of the most important lessons in the Christian tradition is that we are God’s beloved and our self-worth does not depend on what we do or have but on our inherent human dignity. Nouwen explains:
Yes, there is that voice, the voice that speaks from above and from within and whispers softly or declares loudly: “You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests.” It certainly is not easy to hear that voice in a world filled with voices that shout: “You are no good, you are ugly; you are worthless; you are despicable, you are nobody—unless you can demonstrate the opposite.” These negative voices are so loud and so persistent that it is easy to believe them. That’s the great trap. … Put simply, life is a God-given opportunity to become who we are, to affirm our own true spiritual nature, claim our truth, appropriate and integrate the reality of our being, but, most of all, to say “Yes” to the One who calls us the Beloved. The unfathomable mystery of God is that God is a Lover who wants to be loved. The one who crated us is waiting for our response to the love that gave us our being. God not only says: “You are my Beloved.” God also asks: “Do you love me?” and offers us countless chances to say “Yes.” (30-31, 133).
Have you ever noticed patterns of negative thinking in your own life? Sometimes part of the spiritual life involves interrupting patterns of distorted thoughts. David D. Burns, a clinical psychiatrist, helped me to recognize problematic patterns in my own life. See if any of these ring true for you:
- All-or-nothing thinking: You look at things in absolute, black-and-white categories.
- Overgeneralization: You view a negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat.
- Mental filter: You dwell on the negatives and ignore the positives.
- Discounting the positives: You insist that your accomplishments or positive qualities don’t count.
- Jumping to conclusions: You conclude things are bad without any definite evidence. (a) Mind reading: You assume people are reacting negatively to you. (b) Fortune telling: You predict that things will turn out badly.
- Magnification or minimization: You blow things way out of proportion or you shrink their importance.
- Emotional reasoning: You reason from how you feel: “I feel like an idiot, so I must be one.”
- Should statements: You criticize yourself or other people with “should,” “shouldn’ts,” “musts,” “oughts,” and “have-tos.”
- Labeling: Instead of saying, “I made a mistake,” you tell yourself, “I’m a jerk” or “I’m a loser.”
- Blame: You blame yourself for something you weren’t entirely responsible for, or you blame other people and overlook ways that you contributed to a problem. (208).
When we see these patterns of thinking, we can learn strategies for overcoming them. Burns offers practical steps like TIC TOC, Devil’s Advocate, Cost Benefit analysis, and others (he calls them the fifteen ways to untwist your thinking). The bottom line for each strategy is to recognize that these are distorted thought patterns, and to respond with positive and realistic analysis that helps us to put things in perspective. For example, I have a tendency to get into a pattern of #3-6-7 above (mental filter, magnification, emotional reasoning) when reading course evaluations. I’m pretty sure that I’m not the only professor who does this. Anything negative jumps off the page, and I obsess over it, blow it way out of proportion, and feel like a lousy teacher. This is distorted thinking. It would be much healthier to see the whole picture, accept the criticisms as a way to learn about what worked and what didn’t, think about all of the factors that contributed to whatever problems surfaced, examine the actual evidence for negative thoughts before assuming they are true, and substitute positive and realistic thoughts for distorted ones. Brene Brown has a whole chapter on cultivating self-compassion, and she shares similar strategies. One is to name perfectionism as a problem and to think instead about what it means to be “good enough.”
Brown offers an important distinction between healthy striving and perfectionism:
Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame. It’s a shield. Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from taking flight. Perfectionism is not self-improvement. Perfectionism, at its core, is about trying to earn approval and acceptance. Most perfectionists were raised being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule-following, people-pleasing, appearance, sports). Somewhere along the way, we adopt this dangerous and debilitating belief system: I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. Please. Perform. Perfect. Healthy striving is self-focused—How can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focused—What will they think?
Brown asserts that when we practice self-compassion and shame resilience, we can embrace our imperfections and vulnerabilities. While Burns and Brown are not theologians, their ways of talking about the inner life really struck a chord with me. Sometimes I think that in Christian formation we develop problematic patterns of perfectionism in the moral life instead of self-compassion, and if this is true in your life, I’d like to hear how you have come to recognize this and what you think we should do about it.
Jesuit priest Fr. Greg Boyle describes a similar spiritual awakening that he tries to convey to the homeboys and homegirls he works with in Los Angeles. He describes the heavy burdens of pain that so many of his parishioners and friends carry—experiences of abuse, neglect, gang violence, and more. But Boyle’s message is that God never gives up on us. No matter what. “The no-matter-whatness of God dissolves the toxicity of shame and fills us with tender mercy.” It is worth it to spend some time in prayer letting this sink in. Before we can share God’s mercy with others, we have to accept God’s mercy in the deep crevices of pain in our own inner lives.
How do you remind yourself of this truth about yourself—that you are God’s beloved? What other messages are in daily competition with this message from God? How do you say “No” to the other pressures and “Yes” to God? Do you think of God as a Lover? Has this been transformative of your personal identity in any way?
Lesson #3: I am not an island.
The third lesson I’ve learned is the importance of community. Actually, of different kinds of communities. Spouse, family, co-workers, spiritual directors, friends, my faith community, Facebook acquaintances… When I’m willing to share my struggles, questions, and fears with others, they can help me to discern the real voice of God/conscience from the voice of the superego/psychic police officer. They can help me recognize my true identity in contrast to my false self. They can give me encouragement, and hold me accountable. They can remind me of lessons 1 and 2. And of course, on my best days, I do the same for them. It is a kind of sacramentality, isn’t it? But opening up in this way makes us vulnerable, and it is important to realize this. Indeed, there may be times in which we need to be overly cautious out of self-care. With time and discernment we learn whom we can trust. And we learn to detect relationships that seem to be a one-way street instead of mutual sharing and mutual trust.
“A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter, he who finds one finds a treasure.” (Sirach 6:14). Who are your sturdy shelters? In whom can you confide? When you need help in a difficult discernment, to whom do you go? Have you ever thought about talking with a spiritual director? I would recommend it if you’ve never had this opportunity. You can ask your pastor, or even do an online search to find a spirituality center in your area. Many Catholic schools with graduate programs in theology offer certificate programs in spiritual direction; that might be a place to seek a referral if your parish does not have referrals available.
Lesson #4: Much of life is beyond my control.
I cannot predict when my child will be sick with an ear infection. I do not know how many days of school she will need to miss. I cannot predict or control the decisions that administrators at my school will make.
I sing along with Deb Talan: “C’mon, c’mon, lay it down. The best laid plans… C’mon c’mon lay it down… are your open hands.”
I like the image of open hands as we think about the delusion of control in our lives. Or, like John Keats explains the task of negative capability: “Negative capability… [is being] capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” So much of our life is out of our control. But even when you realize that much of your life is out of your control, you can still focus on how you respond to what happens to you. Because the truth is that we do have choices in how we respond.
Katherine Crowley and Kathi Elster use lots of examples and case studies to help people think about how in their own workplace environments they can manage their responses to difficult situations. Their overarching framework is: Detect (detect a difficult relationship and determine what phase you are in), Detach (accept certain facts about the situation and take steps to reclaim your personal power), Depersonalize (naming problematic behavior and not taking it personally), and Deal (devising a plan of protection for managing your workplace crisis). Some suggestions for dealing include adjusting expectations of authority figures at work, addressing one’s unmet needs, and working to alleviate your fears. As with other self-help guides, Crowly and Elster offer worksheets for you to think constructively about your own situation in the light of their advice. But the bottom line is that many of us have work environments in which we realize that we cannot control the behavior of others and we need to think about constructive ways to manage our responses, which we can control.
Novelist Ann Patchett, in an essay that started as a commencement address, talks about the terrifying question, “What now?”
The secret is finding the balance between going out to get what you want and being open to the thing that actually winds up coming your way. What now is not just a panic-stricken question tossed out into a dark unknown. What now can also be our joy. It is a declaration of possibility, of promise, of chance. It acknowledges that our future is open, that we may well do more than anyone expected of us, that at every point in our development we are still striving to grow. There’s a time in our lives when we all crave the answers. It seems terrifying not to know what’s coming next. But there is another time, a better time, when we see our lives as a series of choices, and What now represents our excitement and our future, the very vitality of life. It’s up to you to choose a life that will keep expanding. It takes discipline to remain curious; it takes work to be open to the world—but oh my friends, what noble and glorious work it is.
How do you live with open hands? How do you manage the feeling of being out of control? How do you live the What now?
Lesson #5: Laugh! Do something fun and silly!
Fr. Jim Martin, a regular on The Colbert Report, among other television talk shows, reminds me of the importance of laughter and joy in the Christian life. Why?
Because God relentlessly introduces into even the most serious of situations—whether we like it or not—joy, humor, and laughter. God brings this into churches and synagogues through our humanity on a regular basis, which is something that we should rejoice about. God seems to be in favor of excess levity.
So often when we think about Christian discipleship we think about carrying our crosses. We think about self-sacrificial love, self-emptying love. But what about tickle fights and silly giggles? What about a night out at the movies? What about a hike in the mountains or day at the beach? What about turning up the radio on your drive home and singing along—loudly with the windows down?
Returning to Henri Nouwen, I appreciate how he connects the life of joy to the recognition of our being beloved by God. In this passage, he is telling his friend that he can live a spiritual life, an authentic life, in the heart of the city. He does not need to go to the monastery or the countryside to live authentically:
I would say that the city with its challenges is not such a bad place for you and your friends. There is stimulation, excitement, movement, and a lot to see, hear, taste, and enjoy. The world is evil only when you become its slave. The world has a lot to offer—just as Egypt did for the children of Jacob—as long as you don’t feel bound to obey it. The great struggle facing you is not to leave the world, to reject your ambitions and aspirations, or to despise money, prestige, or success, but to claim your spiritual truth and to live in the world as someone who doesn’t belong to it. It is exciting to win a competition, it is interesting to meet influential people, it is inspiring to listen to a concert at Lincoln Center, to see a movie, or to visit a new exhibition at the Metropolitan. And what’s wrong with good friends, good food, and good clothes? I believe deeply that all the good things our world has to offer are yours to enjoy. But you can enjoy them truly only when you can acknowledge them as affirmations of the truth that you are the Beloved of God. That truth will set you free to receive the beauty of nature and culture in gratitude, as a sign of your Belovedness. That truth will allow you to receive the gifts you receive from your society and to celebrate life. But that truth will also allow you to let go of what distracts you, confuses you, and puts in jeopardy the life of the Spirit within you.
How do you practice joy? How do you celebrate life? How do you honor the Spirit within you in your daily habits?
So, my five lessons are:
- 1. I need to make time to check in with myself and with God.
- 2: I am God’s Beloved
- 3: I am not an island.
- 4: Much of life is beyond my control.
- 5: Laugh! Do something fun and silly!
As I read them together, they seem really obvious. I hear my inner critic saying, “Duh, why did you write such a long post about something so obvious?” But if you are at all like me, you need gentle reminders of these obvious life lessons every once in a while. Now excuse me, I’m going to take my daughter to the park so we can play hide-and-seek and swing on the swings and laugh a little…