Burnout is more than a breakdown. You can appear to continue to function but inside you are shutting down and bailing out, emotionally isolated and lacking any sense of joy or meaning in the motions you are just going through. The light of life has been extinguished that shines in the eyes, illuminates conversation with playfulness and highlights the hues and colours of the world. Instead you stare at the world rather than gaze at it. Your exchanges with other people become informational rather than creative. And the world is increasingly saturated with a single shade of grey.
Lent is a time to scan for any symptoms of burnout. They may reveal themselves in patterns of irritability and withdrawing from contact with others into a false solitude. True solitude refreshes our relationships. It helps us to see if some of our relationships are really mutual time-wasting, using each other to avoid deeper levels. But in true solitude, where we are exposed to our mysterious uniqueness and don’t run away from it, we see our connections with others becoming more meaningful and mutually open to depth. Meditation is this true solitude.
The practices of Lent – our giving up, letting go and praying more seriously – are the way we scan for burnout, a leaking of faith and a tiredness with life. They clear the mind by rewriting old mental patterns, intuitively empowering us with the self-knowledge we need to keep playing interiorly, not just pretending to. It is a paradox of human balance and well-being that detachment and engagement go hand in hand.
If we don’t know how to step back, to open our clasping hand and let go, how to make time for prayer, for going off-line, we soon experience that something is going wonky with our life and relationships. In fact it is something going wrong in ourselves but, as usual, we first blame others, fate or God. We are, in fact, slowly slipping off the wavelength of the spirit that gives life its capacity for growth and transcendence. Without these, experience itself – in absolutely everything we are engaged in – begins to implode and deconstruct. The vital reciprocity of being collapses into an autonomous, self-centred state.
Jesus told his disciples – which means all those who could listen – that the way back from burnout, depression, half-life is to restore the reciprocity to life. Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate. Do not judge, and you will not be judged yourselves; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned yourselves; grant pardon, and you will be pardoned. Give, and there will be gifts for you: a full measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over, will be poured into your lap; because the amount you measure out is the amount you will be given back.
Giving and receiving then become a single rhythm. We pass beyond the politics of fear, segregation and hatred into a sharing society, a community that enjoys being human, a life that overflows.