Tuesday, September 14, 2010

busyness, burnout and the grace of God (6) escape and addiction

February 2008. Only a few months in, it's clear that blogging is highly addictive. Here, no-one needs their nappy changed. No-one bugs me for a snack. No-one fights over who hit who first. When I'm exhausted after a day's housework, am I not entitled to some rest? I sit at the computer, do my best to ignore the sound of children squabbling, and scold anyone who interrupts me. Dinner is late again.

I get too busy when ... work becomes an escape and an addiction.

What I'm learning.
You can't escape your life.

This house and these kids aren't going anywhere, and my husband still needs me (praise God!). My children do need to spend time with their mother, and the truth is I'm longing to take them to the park - when I let myself. There will be times when outside ministry mean that I can't spend as much time with my kids as I like; but there are also times when I do more than I should, and neglect my family. Guilt and exhaustion are the inevitable result.

Life is not about fulfilment: it's about love.
Work is a wonderful escape (for those of us who are workaholics blessed with a fulfilling job): it promises respect, adult conversation, and tasks which seem more meaningful than menial. Ministry is even better: you can salve your conscience while doing it (it's God's work, after all!). But life isn't about my fulfilment; it's about glorifying God in the context he puts me in: my family, church family and community. When work becomes a way to escape my responsibilities, it's time to repent of self-centredness and serve others in love.

Adrenalin is addictive.
It was Christian psychologist Arch Hart who helped me to understand what's happening when I escape into work and ministry. He taught me that busyness can be as addictive as drugs or alcohol (and it's a lot more respectable!) because we become dependent on the adrenalin high which comes with stress. This explains the emotional crash after a major project or mild depression at the start of a holiday: my body is adjusting to the lack of adrenalin. Adrenalin is meant to help us cope with emergencies; it's bad for us when we depend on it to get through everyday life.

Remember the four As: arrogance, addiction, aloneness, adultery. A study of secular leaders identified these 4 stages in aberrant behaviour: arrogant independence where I make my own rules; an adventurous addiction to the excitement of work or ministry; aloneness and perhaps depression as I cut myself off from others; and adultery (or other forms of comfort) to medicate the profound loss of joy in work or ministry.* Reading about these stages was a wake-up call for me, and may help you identify the danger signs of over-busyness.

Don't feed your addiction to work, pressure or busyness.
If you don't feed an addiction, it will shrink rather than grow. I've come up with some simple guidelines to stop me escaping into the wonderful world of writing: for example, no computer for 24 hours on the weekends, or during afternoons and evenings when I'm needed by my family. The exact guidelines differ from month to month (it's about love, not legalism!) but they help me avoid the temptation to escape into ministry or work.

Break work-addiction by resting.
Times of busyness are supposed to be followed by times of rest and recovery. If I feel nervous, guilty or depressed when I take time off, it's a good sign I'm addicted to adrenalin. There's a cure: learn to rest (easier said than done!). I now take a day off a week and a few weeks off each year to recover and spend concentrated time with my family. I try to intersperse ministry demands - a seminar, an article, a talk - with times of rest to give my body and mind time to recover. I still have to force myself to rest, and remind myself it's godly, but I'm getting there!

God is my refuge.
This is easy to remember in theory, but hard in practice! If you're anything like me, when you're tired, bored or anxious, you turn to anything but God: food, relaxation, relationships, entertainment, work, or even putting off work (which, of course, makes you busier in the long run). Addiction is idolatry: it's seeking from other things what we should be seeking from God. But God is our refuge. He alone can give us the comfort, rest and joy we seek.

*From a study of secular leaders, cited in a lecture series by Arch Hart, quoted in Peter Brain's Going the Distance 58-59.

This post is based on chapter 10 of Tim Chester's The Busy Christian's Guide to Busyness with insights from Arch Hart's Adrenaline and Stress and Peter Brain's Going the Distance. If procrastination or thriving on pressure is your problem, you'll find these issues explored in greater detail in Chester's chapter.

images are from Federico_Morando 2, Manic Toys, adrian acediscovery, and alancleaver_2000 at flickr

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