There are times when the most loving, spiritual person can feel as if there’s nothing left to give. There may be feelings of sadness, frustration, or perhaps numbness. The body aches; it’s hard to concentrate and nothing seems fun. At best, the tasks that used to be so meaningful are just something to be endured.
Some call it burnout: feeling that you just can’t give any more, or that what you’re doing won’t make a difference. Some researchers in psychology discuss compassion fatigue: You’ve given until you literally can’t give any more. Burnout or compassion fatigue can strike anyone—professionals, parents, those with sick family members, volunteers, clergy, and religious.
Burnout is one of the hazards of my profession. I am a psychotherapist, working both paid and unpaid hours with a variety of people and needs—adults and children, individuals, couples, and families. My volunteer ministry is in bereavement. Setting boundaries among my personal, professional and parochial lives is a challenge, as it is for many people. In my case, an anxious client may call at three a.m., a grief-stricken parishioner at 9 p.m. It can seem that human needs know no limits.
My energy level, however, does have limits. As a therapist, I have one advantage: Part of my professional training focused on avoiding burnout, reading the first symptoms of job stress and handling the symptoms. Regular exercise, eating well, spending time in prayer and adequate rest are all natural vaccines against symptoms of stress, burnout or compassion fatigue.
A Great Role Model
I have another advantage—the example set by Jesus. So often we read that Jesus went off by himself to pray, to rest, to be alone with God. The message is clear: A healthy lifestyle is not enough. We need to get away and take time to be with God. Our strength is developed and renewed in intimate contact with our Lord. But even this is not enough to avoid burnout.
Vocations—whether in ministry, caring for the sick or dying, parenting, teaching, or our jobs—can be a paradox. We are in some ways enriched, but at the same time depleted by our experiences. We seek a balance among others and self and God: the desire to serve and the desire not to be bled dry by the service.
On a retreat some years ago, our retreat master, a Benedictine sister, spoke of the phenomenon of burnout. She spoke of how Jesus, driven to do so much, yet limited by his own humanity, coped with this. She quoted Mark 3:9, where Jesus told his disciples to “have a boat ready,” because of the crowds. Many retreat participants rushed to their rooms to check their Bibles at the next break. And there it was, just as she told us.
“Have a boat ready!” Four simple words, yet so rich in meaning on reflection! What is Jesus saying here?
First, Jesus expected to have excessive demands made upon him, as should we. The crowds might crush him, just as the seemingly endless demands of our vocations can crush us.
Second, Jesus set a limit on his labors for that session and withdrew. Jesus did not expect to work until he had met everyone’s expectations; the limit would be set by his own self-assessment, not the demands of the crowds. We can learn from this; our work cannot—should not—devour our lives. There will always be one more task, one more patient, one more phone call. If we expect to get “everything finished,” we are going to be very disappointed when we die without getting it all done.
Third, and perhaps most striking and important, Jesus asked his friends to help him take the needed respite. This was so different from the times he went off alone to pray, away from his friends. This time Jesus, truly God and truly human, did not anticipate being able to recuperate alone. The people Jesus loved most were to be part of his rest, refreshment and renewal. He needed them to get a boat ready and then to be with him on the boat.
How glorious, and generous, an example Jesus has set for us! Jesus, constricted in his divine mission by the fragility of flesh and blood, knows intimately how mental and physical fatigue impacts our ability to imitate him. We can struggle in prayer, tend to our basic needs and even retreat for quiet rest, but this is not enough.
We also require the nurturing company of friends and family if we are to be fully refreshed and ready to serve again. We must take a break, but not always alone or on our own. We must be willing to ask our loved ones to “have a boat ready.”
Perhaps the “boat” is a dinner hour without television, radio or smartphone; perhaps it is a ritual of a quiet evening walk together or a weekend away. The “boat” may change its format to suit life’s circumstances—such as COVID—but the existence of a “boat” and the importance of loved ones to help “have a boat ready” are vital aspects of a healthy life. We will need it to be able to fulfill our vocations.
Jesus said so.