Saturday, December 31, 2011

Burnout and a Bucket List

I’ve been dancing on the border of burnout. My energy is down, my focus off. One of the reasons – if reasons are meaningful or necessary, and I’m not sure that they are – it that our team of four has been down to two for several months, but the homeless youth keep showing up. I’m distracted and even less organized than usual. It results in me being late more often, and because my work hours are flexible anyway, I often start my days later. But I’m also ending them later, because of all the above, but also because I’ve given up on multi-tasking, and am resolved to do only one thing at a time. It helps to be more deliberate, and to stick with something until it’s done. One effect is that I’m having more meetings and phone calls with my youth in the late afternoon or evening, sometimes answering my phone when they expect to be getting my voice mail.

Burnout isn’t a good thing. The overall result is that less gets done, and what gets done may be done poorly.  No denying any of that.  One small consolation is that the interactions I have with my youth can be exceptionally rich. I think this is because in my present state I’m more vulnerable, and so more like them, more intimately familiar with the inertia that binds so many of us to our circumstances. Change is hard; inevitable yes, but not always easy to mould into the shape of our dreams.  

I can’t hide my burnout. It’s too obvious, and too real. And so I’ve talked with my boss about it, and to some of my co-workers, and to my clients. I let them know I’m getting things done more slowly, that I’m focusing my efforts more on the basics, the essentials. I put more responsibility on them to keep us connected. I tell them I just don’t have the energy to chase them, as I sometimes do when more fit.

Somehow, this burnout dance acts as a clarifying lens. For the last few months, I’ve been thinking about efficiencies. Specifically, I’ve been wondering how it is that we can engage in routine activities, aimed toward a goal, that produce few or no tangible results over a long period of time. But then, there’s that occasional single act, or conversation or intervention that changes everything in a moment. Some actions have great power. So, so many actions are impotent. But so often, we can’t tell one from the other.

I was recently with a friend who's in a position much more dire than my own. She's approaching a fork in her road at which she anticipates huge pain and disappointment, whatever path she chooses. Seeing no way out of her dilemma has shifted her relationship to the present, in a way both enlivening and alarming. First of all, she keeps reflecting, when she finds herself engaged in some activity, that it might be the last time she ever does it. Her last time in Ottawa, her last meal in a particular restaurant, or experiencing Winter solstice, sitting and drinking with me in a pub... It's a very healthy reflection, I think. She says that it makes her more attentive and appreciative of things that otherwise escape her notice. And there's been an element of relief, or release for her. It brings her into the present and out of the realm of those heavy apprehensions. And that, in turn, has led to a very intentional way for her to acknowledge and sort out her life. She's prepared a bucket list, and is slowly going about, doing and completing the things she feels she absolutely ought to do before departing life. That’s the alarming side – this willing consideration of ending her life. But I see that it is bringing a kind of peace, an ability to, on a deep level, take things just as they are, without the pretence or illusion of a future.

There are connections we realized, my friend and I, as we sat talking about my burnout and her bucket list. I can’t try and dissect that here and now – and we didn’t then. This is something more ‘felt’ than ‘thought’ anyway; something to do with making space and with suspending time, with values and with the brittle artifacts we carve out of expectation. Maybe not something to be reasoned.  I asked my friend if executing her bucket list was leading her toward suicide. And she said she had no idea. Which seemed the only appropriate reply. Living just doesn’t work by such precise formulas.

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