One of the things that I have said a number of times, often in response to people who said I was strong for living in Africa, is that I actually don't feel like I'm strong enough to live in the US and be who God expects me to be. In the US, I find that it is very difficult to keep perspective on life, and I found that people in the US seem to be very unhappy - often isolated and full of self-pity, despite being in one of the wealthiest nations on earth. I know that one of the things I appreciate in Africa is the very strong sense of community and joy in life; I can't feel sorry for myself for a minute in Africa without seeing someone worse off than me, who yet has a smile on their face. There is a greater sense of inner peace and joy in many people I have encountered in West and East Africa, than in North America.
And yet one year after moving back to the US, despite continuing my work in Kenya and starting in Egypt and Ghana, I find myself burned out, exhausted, isolated, and depressed. Oops.
To make matters worse, I have always thought that burnout is irresponsible on behalf of the person who burns out. Just as being busy is an excuse and a sign that we need to take better control of our schedule, burning out is a sign that the person wasn't paying attention to boundaries, wasn't doing self-care, was relying on self more than on God, and so on. Oops again.
It hit on September 11, although the significance of that date had nothing to do with it. On September 10, I took my last oral exam for my MBA, and on September 11, I was sitting in an airport on my way to Ghana and it hit hard. I felt like I was done. I had no strength. I didn't care about what happened next. I quickly recognized that this could be burn out and did the typical "Renita" thing next - I set out to fix it. For the next three months, I tried to fix it, to deny it, to remedy it, but not to recognize the significance of it. On December 11, after seeing a counselor and my doctor, I was told in no uncertain terms that I was burned out. And I was. The problem was that in those three months, I had burned through the last little reservoir of strength left, and I felt completely devoid of any will, desire, or passion. The "What next?" world that I lived in my entire life, became "I don't care" which is an unusual and scary place for me.
People seem to be a bit confused about what burnout is, so let me define it here. Burnout is not depression, it is not stress, it is not frustration with a job. Burnout will not be cured with a week off.
Definition: Burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress.
It occurs when you feel overwhelmed and unable to meet constant
demands. As the stress continues, you begin to lose the interest or
motivation that led you to take on a certain role in the first place. Burnout reduces your productivity and
saps your energy, leaving you feeling increasingly helpless, hopeless,
cynical, and resentful. Eventually, you may feel like you have nothing
more to give.
The difference between stress and burnout: Burnout
may be the result of unrelenting stress, but it isn’t the same as too
much stress. Stress, by and large, involves too much:
too many pressures that demand too much of you physically and
psychologically. Stressed people can still imagine, though, that if they
can just get everything under control, they’ll feel better. Burnout,
on the other hand, is about not enough.
Being burned out means feeling empty, devoid of motivation, and beyond
caring. People experiencing burnout often don’t see any hope of positive
change in their situations. If excessive stress is like drowning in
responsibilities, burnout is being all dried up. While you’re usually
aware of being under a lot of stress, you don’t always notice burnout
when it happens.
There are lots of reasons
that I could list as to what led to the burnout, but I think I underestimated the impact of the stress of moving back to the US after living ten years in Africa. Culture shock was more real than I expected, especially as I merged households with a family who had never lived in Africa. I also know that taking on the role of being the Executive Director of ICM-USA, not as a response to a calling but as a response to filling a need, was more than I bargained for especially given what I was already facing in terms of challenges. Because of that, I have made the difficult decision to resign from that position and try to focus on finding my passion again for Discipling Marketplace Leaders. Right now my dream job is to be a school crossing guard - doing meaningful work to keep children safe, but limited social interaction, defined responsibilities, an actual paycheck rather than raising funds, and an end to the task at the end of a day.
I have been humbled by what has happened to me. I feel guilty about it and saddened by it. I am scared that the passion will not come back. I wish I had been wiser and not so self-reliant. But my head also understands that I am forgiven by a gracious God (my heart still needs some convincing).
Last week I did feel like I received a message from God. I have been receiving daily devotional emails from a Marketplace Ministry called "TGIF" (Today God is First) for about three years now. I read them faithfully the first year, about half the time the second year (they repeat the same emails), and not so much this past year. But the title of one last week caught my eye, "Move On" with the text from Exodus 14:15, "Why are you crying out to Me? Tell the Israelites to move on." Moses and the Israelites were up against the Red Sea with Pharoah and the Egyptians coming behind them. God's response was telling them to move on - as in, keep moving - take the next step - even though scared, anxious, not knowing how, and so on. I thought to myself that that is what I need to do as well. Move on. Be obedient in what I know. God is good at closing doors and if He wants to close the door on my ministry, He will do so. But for now I need to move on despite my impulse to flee. The day after receiving this email, TGIF made the first mistake that I have seen them make in three years: they sent out the same email again. Several hours later they sent out apologies for their error with the proper email for that day. But to me, it didn't feel like an error. It felt like God was underlining the message for this hard-hearted follower: Move on. Just as God was frustrated with the Israelites in this passage who lamented ever leaving Egypt in the first place, this daughter of Yahweh, who just four months ago was so excited and passionate about this ministry and now wants to quit everything, is hearing the Father say both lovingly and firmly, "Move on."
And so, I am moving on. I will work out of obedience, and trust for passion to come back. I have been blessed with a supportive husband, loving children, and a compassionate boss who are encouraging me to take the time I need to recover. I do apologize and seek forgiveness from my colleagues in this work as well as supporters of the ministry for this stumble. Please pray with me for God's will to be done.