I was going to do a lot of things last week. I was going to get my office organized, I was going to get started on a book proposal, I was going to read a few books that had been begging for my attention for weeks, and I was going to craft the next post for this blog in my series on religiosity in Northern Ireland. And then, people happened. Far more than usual, life just kept happening.
A few beloved friends had grief barge into their lives last week; cancer, divorce, abuse disclosures, miscarriage, death. Some colleagues and friends of friends asked for a few minutes of my time for advice on their own cyclones of personal chaos; do I know any good childhood trauma therapists in our area, can I point someone else in the direction of good elder care since their mother is in a neglectful home at present, could this person buy me a cup of coffee to pick my brain about how to get out of their abusive marriage.
I’ve been in the caring for people profession since before I could legally earn money and have pursued all manners of training towards that end. People are my passion, and serving them to live their best lives is my calling. It may not be how I’m earning my paycheck that day, but it is always my job. I love it and the days that usually drain me the most are the ones where I can’t see how the task I’m doing doesn’t directly help someone else.
When weeks like last week happen, I realize how much I need to check myself. I may be called to serve all these folks, but I am always only a part of their story. I cannot make their choices for them and am rarely still present in their lives when it all pans out. My job is to be faithful to the moment I am in and to love them (be patient, and kind, and hopeful, and firm) the best that I know how in that moment. To help them, perhaps, see through the cloud of grief to remember to feed their dog before their mother’s funeral, or to feed them so they don’t have to remember to feed themselves.
I have people like this for me and I value reciprocity, fidelity, and vulnerability in relationships above a lot of other traits because of the life I lead. These folks, my team, are my best guard against the commonly used phrase in helping professions, “burn out”. I learned a while ago that my inner sensor for such a thing is off kilter and I can rarely judge if I’m careening into areas of exhaustion heretofore unknown. So, I picked people who would love me enough to tell me to knock it off, remember that the weight of the world doesn’t rest on my shoulders, and to go play a video game or take a walk and for the love of all that is holy shut off my phone. (This may or may not be a direct text I received recently.)
I believe the love I am called to embody demands nothing less than all of me, but I can’t keep giving that without pausing. It’s simply impossible.
Yesterday, as we celebrated the start of Holy Week, I was reminded again that the days between the Triumphant Entry and Maundy Thursday aren’t documented. Jesus sat on that donkey, watched his people pledge adoration and probably had his heart breaking more and more with every plodding step. It may have been a victorious event outwardly, but inwardly it was the start of his mourning that Friday was unavoidable because we all needed what only he could give us. So maybe, on Monday, he took a pause. He hung out by himself, or with the people who wouldn’t drain his life force. He ate food he loved and laughed at children and read the Torah and attempted to be fully present.
On this ordinary Monday, I am reminded of the necessity to pause. As they say in the chronic pain community, I ran out of spoons last week. Maybe you did, too. Maybe you ran out of your limit years ago, days ago, moments ago. Maybe you know it’s coming and can’t imagine how to stop the tide from crashing over your soul. Maybe you have no idea what I’m talking about. (I have a feeling you do, though, if you’re honest.) Maybe you need to find your team, circle up, and find rest. Find your pause, your center, the things that give you life so that you can give life to others. Friday is coming, y’all, and it is gonna be rough. So before we march into the breech once more, before we’re confronted once again with the worst parts of this world, with the worst parts of ourselves, let’s take a break.
If you need me, I’ll be the one… No, wait. Get me tomorrow. Today I’m taking a pause.
Dr. Kristen Nielsen Donnelly (MSW, M.Div) holds a PhD in Sociology from Queen's University Belfast, where she focused on the intersections of religion and gender in Northern Irish Protestantism. Professionally, Kristen serves as the Director of Abbey Research, a concierge research firm for small businesses and non-profits. Her research interests revolve around the intersectionality of practical theology, especially how gender, faith, and popular culture all play together. Learning and asking questions are her core hobbies, which is why she is both an unrepentant bookworm and serial traveler. Kristen and her husband, John, live in Philadelphia, surrounded by piles of books and video game consoles.