Irritability or hypersensitivity. Do things that normally wouldn't bother you (such as a child's mistake, another driver cutting you off in traffic, or a coworker's irritating habit) put you over the edge?
Restlessness. During waking hours are you aware of a vague sense that something isn't quite right or an even stronger feeling of wanting to bolt from your life? When it's time to rest, do you find yourself unable to settle down and sit quietly or fall asleep?
Compulsive overworking. Do you struggle with work boundaries? Do you check email late into the evening? Are you unable to unplug completely to go on vacation? Do you struggle to enter into solitude or spend uninterrupted time with family?
Emotional numbness. Do you feel you aren't able to really feel anything emotionally—good or bad? And if you did, are you afraid you would be overwhelmed?
Escapist behaviors. When you do have a break in the action, do you find yourself succumbing to escapist behaviors (compulsive eating, drinking, or other substance abuse, spending, television, pornography, surfing the internet)? Do you feel you don't have the energy to choose activities that are life giving (exercising, going for a walk or bike ride, connecting meaningfully with friends and family, enjoying a hobby or interest like playing an instrument, cooking, painting, drawing, writing poetry, playing sports, working with our hands, reading a good book)?
Disconnected from our identity and calling. Do you go through the motions of doing ministry but feel disconnected from a true sense of who you are and what God is calling you to do? Are you at the mercy of other people's expectations and your own inner compulsions because you lack an internal plumb line against which to measure these demands?
Not able to attend to human needs. Do you feel you don't have time to take care of basic human needs such as exercise, eating right, sleeping enough, going to the doctor, having that minor (or major) surgery we need? Do even simple things such as getting the car washed, picking up the dry cleaning, or staying organized seem impossible to accomplish? Do you sense that your most important relationships (family and friends) are routinely being short-changed?
Hoarding energy. Do you have the inner experience of always feeling threatened, as though exposing yourself to additional people or situations would drain the last of your energy or the energy you're trying to conserve for what you think is important? Are you overly self-protective and even reclusive in your attempts to hoard the few resources you do have?
Slippage in your spiritual practices. Have practices that are normally life-giving (solitude and silence, prayer, personal reflection on Scripture, journaling, self-examination, caring for the body) become burdensome? Do you believe you don't have the time or energy for them even though you know they're good for you?
If even a few of these symptoms are true for you, chances are you're pushing up against human limitations, and you might need to consider that "what you're doing isn't good" for you or for the people you're serving.
Two Kinds of Tired
As I've paid more attention to my own tiredness and fatigue, I've learned that there are at least two kinds of tired. One is what I call "good tired." This is the kind of tiredness we experience after a job well done, a task accomplished out of the best of who we are. If we're living in healthy rhythms of work and rest, this tiredness is a temporary condition, and when it comes, we know that after we take appropriate time for rest and recuperation, we'll soon be back in the swing of things.
But another kind of tiredness is more ominous, and this is what I call "dangerous tired." It's deeper and more serious than the temporary exhaustion that follows periods of intensity of schedule and workload. The difference between "good tired" and "dangerous tired" is like the difference between the atmospheric conditions that produce harmless spring rain clouds and those that bring an eerie green-tinted sky and the possibility of a tornado. When the sky is green like that, you're not quite sure what's going on, but something doesn't feel right, and you know you'd better pay attention. One atmospheric condition is normal and predictable; the other is risky and volatile.
Dangerous tired is the atmospheric condition of the soul that's volatile and portends the risk of great destruction. It's a chronic inner fatigue accumulating over months and months, and it doesn't always manifest itself in physical exhaustion. In fact, it can be masked by excessive activity and compulsive overworking. When we're dangerously tired we feel out of control, compelled to constant activity by inner impulses that we may not be aware of. For some reason we can't quite name, we're not able to linger and relax over a cup of coffee. We can't keep from checking voicemail or email "just one more time" before we leave the office or before we go to bed at night. Or we can't stop cleaning or doing repairs and projects in order to take a walk in the evening or be quietly available to those we love.
Rather than reading anything for the sheer pleasure of it, we pile the nightstand with books and professional journals that cram our heads full of information to keep us at "the top of our game." The idea of taking a full day off once a week (a Sabbath) seems impossible both in theory and in practice. We rarely, if ever, take a real break or vacation, choosing instead to work through holidays and break times. Not surprisingly, even when it's time for well-deserved sleep or rest, we may be unable to relax and receive this necessary gift.
While our way of life may seem heroic, there's a frenetic quality to our activity that's disturbing to those around us.
Simple Ways to Begin to Rest
One of the most sobering things I learned as I listened to my exhaustion and allowed God to minister to me is that when I'm dangerously tired I can be very, very busy and look very, very important but be unable to hear the quiet, sure voice of the One who calls me the beloved. When that happens I lose touch with that place in the center of my being where I know who I am in God, where I know what I'm called to do, and where I'm responsive to his voice above all others. When that happens I'm at the mercy of all manner of external forces, tossed and turned by others' expectations and my own compulsions. These inner lacks then become the source of my frenetic activity, keeping me forever spiraling into deeper levels of exhaustion.
As you read these words you may realize that you're teetering on the brink of dangerous tired—or that you're already over the edge.
This can be a painful realization. But what would happen if, rather than judging and berating yourself, you lingered with your awareness, noticing the weariness that makes it hard for you to be attentive and alert in times of prayer and attentiveness to God? What would happen if you allowed yourself to wonder about your tiredness just a bit?
Rather than criticizing yourself about falling asleep during prayer or your lack of interest in solitude, what if you gave yourself the freedom to notice your weariness with compassion? "Wow, I'm really tired. I'm not sure I was aware of just how tired I am. What is that all about?"
Rather than distracting yourself in some way, what would happen if you chose to stay in God's presence and talk with him about your tiredness, acknowledging it as a child would with a parent who cares and can help? What if, rather than feeling alone and weighed down by the seeming impossibility of your situation, you invited God into it with a prayer: "Dear God, this tiredness is what's true about me. What are we going to do about it?"
Such honest noticing and questioning open up the opportunity for God to touch us and care for us in the midst of our humanness.
As you consider your level of tiredness, don't rush to try to solve or fix anything; instead, give yourself time and space to notice what is true about you. Invite God into this moment by saying, "God, this is what is true about me. What are we going to do about this?"
Allow yourself to become fully aware of God with you in these moments, loving you and extending compassion to you. Hear the words of Jesus spoken to you in these moments: "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28). What is it like to hear these words right now? Do you believe it's possible for you to find the rest you need? Tell God what you need, and listen for what he wants to say to you now.
Adapted from Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership and Invitation to Solitude and Silence by Ruth Haley Barton. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press.
Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today/Kyria.com.
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