by Catharine Hannay and (my sister) Rev. Deborah Sunoo
“Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling some five balls in the air. You name them work, family, health, friends and spirit. And you’re keeping all of these in the air. You will soon understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls – family, health, friends and spirit – are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged or even shattered. They will never be the same. You must understand that and strive for balance in your life.”
Brian Dyson, from his 1991 commencement speech at Georgia Tech
This post grew out of a series of conversations about the challenges of balancing self-care with care for our families and the people we serve in our work. We've also done our best to support each other during quite stressful circumstances over the past five years. Our mother died of brain cancer last summer, and we both had to make quite difficult decisions in various aspects of our lives.
After talking to many fellow educators and clergy, as well as nurses, doctors, social workers, and counselors, we've realized that while the details may be different, the basic challenges are quite similar across all of the helping professions. Even for those of us doing God’s work, we’re still only human. Working 24/7 year after year after year simply isn’t sustainable.
Mom taught us to have a very strong work ethic (she published several books while teaching full-time), but she also had a favorite motto whenever the family tendency toward perfectionism was getting out of control:
"When all else fails, lower your standards!"
Sometimes this has to apply to self-care. Because of course we know we should eat healthy foods and get some form of exercise and get outside whenever possible and so on and so on.
And of course we'd like to spend some time relaxing and catching up with our friends and getting to know our neighbors better and so on and so on.
And of course we need all those things even more when life is insane. But at the same time, it doesn't do a bit of good to add to an already stressful time worrying that we’re not surviving it correctly.
Meanwhile, we may feel quite selfish taking any time at all for ourselves in the midst of serving our congregations, students, patients, or clients.
Glass Ball # 1: Work
While we appreciate Brian Dyson's perspective on balls that bounce vs. balls that shatter, for those of us in the helping professions the situation is different. If we drop the work ball, it could have serious consequences for other people. It's important to keep reminding ourselves that self-care isn't the same as self-indulgence. Taking care of ourselves is essential if we're going to continue taking care of others.
As Dr. Sam Himelstein puts it,
"Since we are the tools of the trade, we must care for ourselves in such a way as to reduce burnout, and, if it does occur, take appropriate action to facilitate our own healing."
Part of the issue is that many of us have to spend a lot of time on paperwork and other aspects of our jobs that don't have a direct connection to the people we serve.
Dr. Ronald Epstein suggests that “We can tolerate long hours and even welcome stress if work intrinsically brings a sense of purpose, satisfaction, joy, and meaning.”
“Stop and think, ‘What, in my work setting, gives me the greatest sense of joy, fulfillment, and meaning?’ [...] ‘In a typical week, how much of my time do I actually spend doing those activities?’ It doesn’t have to be 100%; few people are that fortunate. Research shows that if physicians spend even 20 percent of their work time in the activities that they regard as most meaningful, they’re much less likely to be burned out, meaning that they’re more able to tolerate the difficult moments.”
Glass Ball #2: Family
Especially for those of us with children, it's essential that we don't lose track of our own families' needs while we're doing all we can to serve others.
In his book on Clergy Burnout, Rev. Fred Lehr describes his efforts to give at-home communion to forty parishioners spread out over several different towns. He would spend all day driving around visiting them, stop at home for a quick supper, then head back out for an evening meeting at church.
"On one such day, my son (then four years old) said, ‘So long, Dad. Thanks for stopping by.’ Ouch!"
Since my (Deb’s) husband is also a minister, we have to be especially careful about balancing the needs of our 'flocks' with the needs of our kids.
In fact, most of the time they were growing up, we were working at the same church. We made a rule not to answer the phone or talk about work at the dinner table, and we let our daughters decide on the penalty. Whenever we slipped up, we’d have to make their beds the next morning.
We also tried to compensate for longer days/evenings of church work by using some of our flex-time when possible to attend weekday school functions and field trips, and we prioritized being at home for homework hours and dinnertime even when we needed to head back out to a church function later on.
As Rev. Lehr puts it,
"I am not talking about sacrificing ministry for the sake of saving oneself. It is possible to engage in productive ministry while maintaining healthy boundaries of self-care and family/spouse devotion." (Clergy Burnout)
Glass Ball #3: Health
There's an all-too-common tendency in the helping professions to ignore the needs of our own bodies until we're forced to do so by illness or injury. I've talked to teachers and nurses who are so frazzled they can't/won't take a couple of minutes in between classes or appointments to sip some water or use the restroom. Those aren't indulgences, they're biological necessities!
There was a period of time when I (Catharine) wasn’t speaking to my husband. Not that I was angry with him; we were getting along just fine. The problem was that I had a persistent throat infection but couldn’t/wouldn’t take a break from teaching, so I had to rest my voice whenever I wasn’t in class.
Another time, he came home and wondered why I’d decided to take a nap wearing my workout clothes and one sneaker. That wasn’t my intent; I was falling-down exhausted, but determined to keep up with my daily exercise routine. I sat on the edge of the bed, started to put my shoes on, toppled over, and decided I was better off lying there than forcing myself to get up and likely injure myself.
I've finally learned to let go of my list of what I 'should' do to be healthy. Now, rather than pushing myself to be dutiful, I regularly ask myself, “What does my body need right now?” Most of the time there’s a clear and simple answer. Sit up straight. Stop staring at a screen. Take a walk.
Deb's motto is "better than" for food choices and activity. Better to drink a glass of water than a can of soda. Better to exercise two days a week than not at all. Better to do something than nothing.
Glass Ball #4: Friends (and Colleagues and Neighbors)
This attitude applies to our relationships as well. We may not be able to spend as much time socializing as we'd like. We can make sure to squeeze in the time for the occasional chat with colleagues we'd like to get to know better. This is actually how Catharine met her closest friends; and Deb participates in a surprisingly lively gathering of women pastors from churches in her neighborhood. ('Surprising' only if you don't spend a lot of time hanging out with pastors.) And simple acts of kindness really can make an enormous difference. A thoughtful phone call, a well-timed card, a visit, a hug, a meal, a prayer… These can all be acts of love.
SARK (Susan Ariel Rainbow Kennedy) tells the story of a difficult time in her life when everything shifted because of a small gesture from a stranger. She'd been feeling overwhelmed by her work and worried about her 80-year-old mother’s health.
"On this particular day, I just sat there surrounded by piles of things to do and all of my concerns, feeling helpless."
She decided that she could at least get her laundry done, so she lugged several loads of wash to the laundromat across the street. When she happened to look up, she was startled by what she saw.
"There at the top of the wall near the ceiling, balanced on a pipe, was a stuffed blue dinosaur. I just gaped with delight... I saw my neighbor Jimmie, and beckoned him inside to see the blue dinosaur. I told him about my bad mood and feeling overwhelmed and pressured, and we shared experiences of coping with loss and change, and of the basic utterly hopeless feelings that sometimes envelop us."
She went home for a while and when she came back to get her clean clothes, she discovered that Jimmie had left her a gift: a small flowering plant on top of each washing machine. The man who maintained the laundromat asked about the flowers, and she asked him about the blue dinosaur.
"He said, 'I put it up there in case it could cheer someone up.' I explained how much it had cheered me, and how it had led to the flowers and a deep conversation. I then handed him one of the flowering plants... He had tears in his eyes and said, 'I’ve never had a plant before'... and he walked off with his little red flower in a pot."
Glass Ball #5: Spirit
"A man's spirit will sustain him in sickness, but a crushed spirit, who can bear?"
The more aware we are of all the problems in the world, and the more committed we are to the people we serve, the greater the risk of wearing ourselves out from the constant work and constant exposure to trauma and suffering.
According to compassion fatigue expert Françoise Mathieu:
"The data collected during the past 15 years are highly consistent: many helpers across the various helping fields (teachers, physicians, nurses, social workers, prison therapists, judges, police officers, chaplains, etc.) are showing clear signs of compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma."
Whether or not you belong to a religious community, it's essential to have a regular, personally-meaningful practice of spiritual renewal. This could be prayer, meditation, spending time in nature, or inspirational reading.
The goal isn't to forget all of the suffering in the world but to experience moments that restore our faith (in God, the world, or humanity).
Pema Chodron, one of Catharine's favorite Buddhist writers, describes such a moment of transcendence:
"The other morning I woke up worrying about a dear friend’s well-being. I felt it as an ache in my heart.
When I got up and looked out my window, I saw such beauty that it stopped my mind. I just stood there with the heartbreak of my friend’s condition and saw trees heavy with fresh snow, a sky that was purple-blue, and a soft mist that covered the valley…
I realized then what it means to hold pain in my heart and simultaneously be deeply touched by the power and magic of the world."
Real life being what it is, daily or even weekly balance isn't usually possible. If we think in terms of cycles—weeks, months, even years—there are times when we may need to put more of our energy into our work, caring for our families, or dealing with our own health issues.
As Roshi Bernie Glassman puts it:
“We all need different ingredients, and different amounts, at different times in our lives. At this point in your life, maybe you need to focus on your livelihood, or perhaps you need to focus on spirituality. You have to reevaluate your situation constantly. You don’t make a satisfying meal by using equal amounts of salt and sugar. You need to look at your situation and find out how much of each ingredient is needed at any given moment.”
In other words, we can't always keep five balls in the air, but rather than 'dropping the ball,' we can consciously choose to carefully set one or two balls down for a while, in a place we know they won't come to serious harm.
We don't have to toss them into a grungy basement or a dumpster. We can reserve a special spot for them on our dresser or our desk: we can still see them and protect them in some way, even when we can't be as focused on them as we'd like to be.
For example, if we need to take time off from work, we can arrange for a responsible colleague to cover for us (and return the favor as soon as we're able to do so). If we can't be with our children, we can leave them with trusted caregivers they enjoy spending time with, and who adore them in return. If we can't see our friends for a while, we can send a quick email or postcard letting them know they're still in our thoughts and in our hearts.
“By developing the deep sense of awareness needed to care for ourselves while caring for others and the world around us, we can greatly enhance our potential to work for change, ethically and with integrity, for generations to come.”
Laura van Dernoot Lipsky, Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others
photo by Mac Mullins from pexels
About the Authors:
Catharine Hannay is the founder of Mindful Teachers.
Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo is the pastor of Magnolia Presbyterian Church in Seattle, Washington.