The Surprising Antidote To Exhaustion

If the pandemic has done anything to me, it has stripped me of what I thought was real and important. It has removed any last drop of energy that I might use to effort myself into something other than my true authentic self. It has robbed me of any emotional reserves to endure ‘normal life’ any longer. If anything, the pandemic has laid me bare.

And I’m one of the lucky ones. I haven’t yet caught the virus or it’s many strains. I have not yet lost a loved one. I did not lose my livelihood or my home. I enjoyed the ‘snow year’ of quieter days. I wrote more. I reacquainted myself with my quiet nerdy inner introvert. But I did lose something. I lost my capacity to fake it. I lost the energy to be less than wholehearted.

Some call it burnout. The trouble is, the pandemic hit us when our stress load was already at a breaking point. Between technology haste, little access to affordable healthcare, skyrocketing debt, rising poverty, and the Trump era, we were all headed for a wall. The Atlantic writes, “By stripping our emotional reserves even further, the pandemic has laid bare our unique vulnerabilities—whether medical, social, emotional, occupational, or logistical. Every aspect of life has required added work during the pandemic—eating and sleeping, shopping for necessities, getting routine medical care, learning, relating to others. Despite heightened anxiety we’ve had to juggle parenting, caregiving, and working without our traditional support structures.”

Burnout is a term usually reserved to describe work-related phenomena: exhaustion, overwhelm, feelings of negativism, and reduced professional efficacy. However, beyond the workplace, we live in an age when society itself seems to be burning out, not just from work, but from life.

We are encouraged to recover from burnout by taking more time out for self-care, weighing your options, getting some exercise, or getting more sleep. But what if we’re not meant to ‘re-cover’. What if all these symptoms are asking us to look more closely at what we don’t want to return to? What if our bodies are asking us for a significant pivot?

In times like these, when my heart is exhausted, when I don’t feel that I belong to the world anymore, I turn to poets and poetry for comfort and answers. And sometimes good poetry evokes questions too, as poet David Whyte would say, ‘questions that have no right to go away’ as written in his poem Sometimes below. 

if you move carefully
through the forest,
like the ones
in the old stories,
who could cross
a shimmering bed of leaves
without a sound,
you come to a place
whose only task
is to trouble you
with tiny
but frightening requests,
conceived out of nowhere
but in this place
beginning to lead everywhere.
Requests to stop what
you are doing right now,
to stop what you
are becoming
while you do it,
that can make
or unmake
a life,
that have patiently
waited for you,
that have no right
to go away.

According to Whyte, questions that have no right to go away are those that have to do with the person we are about to become; they are conversations that will happen with or without our conscious participation. Are there questions emerging for you that have no right to go away? If you are like so many of us right now–exhausted, overwhelmed, frightened and uncertain–is life reshaping us towards something else? Is a pivot in store?

In the spirit of Whyte’s inquiry, here are eight questions that have no right to go away:

  • Do I know how to love?
  • Am I in the right circle, clan, community?
  • Do I know how to deeply listen?
  • Do I have good friends around me with whom I feel safe?
  • Do I feel comfortable in my own solitude?
  • Do I have enough space between stimulus and response?
  • Am I generous with my gifts?
  • How do I heed my own inner rhythm despite the world’s tendency towards speed?

And one more that Whtye asked at a crucial turning point in his life when he found himself burnt out by his job at a non-profit: What can I be wholehearted about?

His prompt came from a wise friend and Benedictine monk, Brother David Steindl-Rast, who came to stay with him at his home during this difficult time. David came home one evening particularly stressed from a day of ‘trying to fix the world and finding the world didn’t want to be fixed as quickly as he’d like’. He sat down with his friend, and suddenly, out of nowhere, almost beseechingly, asked, “Brother, speak to me of exhaustion.”

“The antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest,” said Brother Steindl-Rast, pausing as David looked at him surprised. “The antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness,” he continued. “You’re so exhausted because you can’t be wholehearted at what you’re doing…because your real conversation with life is through poetry.” Thus inspired, Whyte began the long road to a career change that allowed him share his whole heart and real gifts with the world through poetry.

Is the antidote to your exhaustion and overwhelm wholeheartedness? If so, where can you find it? And what do you need to let go of so that you can give your most whole hearted gifts to the world?

I’m remembering another one of Whyte’s poems––Sweet Darkness, and his poignant line, “Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet confinement of your aloneness to learn anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you.”

I believe collectively many of us are at a crossroads. Worn paper thin by years of unimaginable pressure, exposed to almost two years of pandemic trauma, we emerge with questions that have no right to go away. Because life in its wisdom has pushed us to a pivot point. Many of us are more aware than ever about the preciousness of life, and this one prescient moment. Who do we want to be? What and who are too small for us? What are the gifts we wish to be wildly generous with? If not now, when? If not you, who?

I leave you with another poem to accompany you during this pivotal time, from a dear friend of Whyte, the Irish philosopher John O’Donohue.

For One Who is Exhausted, a Blessing

When the rhythm of the heart becomes hectic,
Time takes on the strain until it breaks;
Then all the unattended stress falls in
On the mind like an endless, increasing weight.

The light in the mind becomes dim.
Things you could take in your stride before
Now become laborsome events of will.

Weariness invades your spirit.
Gravity begins falling inside you,
Dragging down every bone.

The tide you never valued has gone out.
And you are marooned on unsure ground.
Something within you has closed down;
And you cannot push yourself back to life.

You have been forced to enter empty time.
The desire that drove you has relinquished.
There is nothing else to do now but rest
And patiently learn to receive the self
You have forsaken in the race of days.

At first your thinking will darken
And sadness take over like listless weather.
The flow of unwept tears will frighten you.

You have traveled too fast over false ground;
Now your soul has come to take you back.

Take refuge in your senses, open up
To all the small miracles you rushed through.

Become inclined to watch the way of rain
When it falls slow and free.

Imitate the habit of twilight,
Taking time to open the well of color
That fostered the brightness of day.

Draw alongside the silence of stone
Until its calmness can claim you.
Be excessively gentle with yourself.

Stay clear of those vexed in spirit.
Learn to linger around someone of ease
Who feels they have all the time in the world.

Gradually, you will return to yourself,
Having learned a new respect for your heart
And the joy that dwells far within slow time.

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