Last week was full of voices, and I happily went out to meet them. I listened. I brought more than enough of my own voice in response. And then, each evening, I came home, wrapped myself in a brief but blessed silence . . . and got up the next day to do the same thing with new people.
That’s a piece about talking; there’s also something about writing, or at least about writing in my world, in this: I walk around with the words long before I ever put them to paper. The phrases parade through my head, ring in my ears, arrange and rearrange themselves on the tip of my tongue.
And something else: it has to be quiet. It has to feel spacious. I have to be alone, at least in my head if not in my embodied reality.
And friends, in these moments, I prefer to be alone, actually.
I wrote nothing last week. It’s not that I tried and failed; I didn’t get that far. It’s that I could no longer conceive of writing. I could not imagine a space in which to try. I felt like I had ceded every inch of myself to the roar outside, and returned home with an echo of it answering from within. I addressed these concerns to a fellow writer and seminarian; she responded, I know–I get home and ask myself what I want to say and hear birds chirping.
By the end of last week, I was spent, just in time for a weekend stacked with more of the same. House meeting to listen to personal stewardship stories on Saturday (it was lovely!). Preaching to an unfamiliar congregation on Sunday (beautiful, and so very welcoming!)
I get a lot of my energy externally, so this abundance of beauty and energy outside should beget beauty and energy inside, right? That’s how I figured it, anyway, stacking meetings on appointments on phone calls–this is a weird way to set up a week, but all of of this stuff is happening at the same time, and hey, it’ll be fun!
It surprised me, then, that on this Monday morning –a Monday after the fourth of five consecutive weeks of preaching (all but one) or speaking (the spare) at Sunday services, I was feeling quite ragged . . . and well on my way toward wretched. I pushed through the day anyway–fake it till you make it is a great energy secret, right?— my mind already on Monday evening. And Tuesday . . . the towering gauntlet of Tuesday. No time to stop, batter up! I was thus both confounded and utterly bemused when, at 4:30, three meetings into a four-meeting day, I suddenly lost part of my vision.
It was as if perforations had appeared in the lenses of my eyes—I could see well enough to walk around, but things appeared oddly shimmery. I couldn’t create the contiguous picture necessary to read text or type. It’s embarrassing to say, but I spent 30 disbelieving (and fruitless) minutes trying to find a way to restructure the rest of my day before making the journey home. By the time I arrived there, I felt truly incoherent. I invested a ridiculous amount of time in attempting to write a check to the babysitter, made an urgent call to my husband, and promptly passed out, entering the maddening liminal space in which you think you’re doing x and saying y, but are actually doing nothing. Besides scaring people. Ordinarily, I’d have been scaring myself, too; as it was, I was too out of it to feel properly frightened, or to feel anything, really, but spent.
Two hours later, I awoke suddenly. Things were back to normal, but for a headache; Dr. Facebook (thank you, colleagues near and far) assured me that I had experienced an ocular migraine. And that I should rest, and avoid sex (really; someone told me this), and get it checked out should another one occur.
That all sounds like wise advice, and I plan to take it. I am also taking this opportunity, however, to offer myself some non-medical advice. It’s a little something about boundaries, firmish limits which go far beyond what I had initially thought was necessary.
You see, as a lifelong extrovert, I count on interactions with people I love to feed my energy stores. And it’s true, those conversations do feed me: until the point where they don’t.
I don’t think I had occasion to know this limit, exactly. At the very least, it was always masked as other things. I am tired after dealing with a roomful of rowdy preschoolers because tiredness under these circumstances is simply a Law of Nature. And I am tired after a week involving a revolving door of meetings-lunches-coffee dates-appointments because . . . it turns out I actually do not have the stamina for ministry?
I do, from time to time, draw bizarre satisfaction from making precisely those sorts of sweeping generalizations, but it hasn’t escaped my attention that they tend to be wrong. And in this case, “I can’t hack it in ministry if I can’t grit it out through a week like this” is incorrect because the difficulty I’m experiencing is not about grit. It’s about balance, and the energy that we invest or withdraw with each interaction.
There is, for me, a tipping point at which the relational interactions both cease to feed my energy and begin to rob my soul. And I suspect that it’s not just me. How many of us question how to get the balance right in this highly draining, highly demanding, highly relational field?
Just a few days ago, a mentor in ministry spoke of her sense of sadness and overwhelm at trying to balance her emotional wish for connection with her physical need for some down time. She attributed the inner tug-of-war to her introversion, but I suspect that we are all playing the same game at different times each week.
This is why there must be a sabbath—and for those of us in the Sabbath business, that sure isn’t going to be Sunday. This is why there are office hours. This is why there are boundaries.
I sort of assumed that these lines were drawn so that others knew how to stay in the minister’s good graces. I imagine that respecting them does help with congregant-minister relations, but seeing, now, from the other side, I also understand that those limits exist as an act of profound self-care. They represent, for ministers, stewardship of our time and talent in the same way that we carefully place our treasure.
Speaking to the difficult decisions inherent in creating safeguards around our time, and our hearts, and our energies, one minister argued last fall that what makes sense from a planning perspective is not time management, but energy management. Some interactions drain. Some feed. This must be taken into account in planning for the kind of lives we lead. Personally, I am persuaded that this focus on managing time to maintain energy is gospel truth, and I am grateful for this opportunity to learn it early.
Including yesterday. Temporary blindness is one of the less subtle wake up calls I’ve experienced, but today I felt I could see, and in more ways than one: there are many ways to burn the candle at both ends, and they all, ultimately, are unsustainable. In this vein, I have been thinking lots this afternoon about a quote from Rabbi Moses Sofer: No woman is required to build the world by destroying herself.
I suspect that for the highly relational among us, living on the side of sustainability means special attention to the place where we start to build the village by cutting off pieces of ourselves. Further, it requires that we then stop ourselves, not at that self-destructive place, but at a much earlier spot on the upside of the hill. It is difficult to ask ourselves to stop there. It is a struggle of will to yield in a place of unfinished business when we ourselves have yet more to give. Yet there is deep wisdom in the timing of the pause, and it comes not just from theologians, but from teachers.
I have spent the main part of my adult life working in and around early childhood programs, and I once attended a wonderful workshop with children’s singer and songwriter Jackie Silberg. Aside from the very catchy All the Fish Are Swimmin’ in the Water, what I still remember, years later, from that weekend is this wisdom: Never, never, never wait until the highest point of the energy to end an activity: you leave everyone nowhere to go but down, and that is where the problems happen.
Jackie was talking about the tightrope act that is singing and dancing with exuberant youngsters in confined spaces, but it’s true in life, too. It’s true right here. We are passionate, loving, committed people, and we are taking on the fight and the blessing of our lives every single day. Why would we not leave it all out there?
Why would we stop before we drop?
Because, my friends: we are a people who believe in tomorrow.
This, above all things, is our gift of faith to the world. And living it begins right here with each of us.
So understand, please, that I will take your call in a crisis. If you are crying, I will hold your hand or simply sit with you for all the time that it takes. I will be at the hospital, I will bless your baby, I will be the person, and fit the role, that you need me to.
And understand also that later, in the small moments, in the full holiness of a sabbath that may to any other ear be called Tuesday, I will return to my words. I will return to myself. You will hear about the committee meeting not this minute or even today, but next week. We will talk and laugh together soon, and we’ll schedule it, because you are important and we are important, and also, so am I.
I love God, and the world, so much that I will not destroy myself to build it.