Doing and Being Well

Revisiting the burning out phenomenon, especially burning out in ministry.

If I could distill the answer to “how to live a meaningful life?” to something simple, based on my short life thus far, I think it would be the imperative of doing and being well. The two components have to always be present simultaneously, because losing one of them will result in the feeling of meaninglessness. They’re imperative in the sense that it’s the simple, unavoidable need of the soul.

There’s a deep need in every soul both to do and to be, and out of these two we glean a sense of meaning and fulfillment in life. It seems to me that burning out often is caused by the absence of either one of the two components; a person gets saturated with only one component and atrophies. The saturation points from doing and being too much look different though. (Yes, I do think that one can get saturated in “being.”) And again, I think I have been to both ends of this spectrum as well.

The Need to Do

What makes the last day of finals, graduation days, and deadlines so exciting? One word – accomplishment. Deadlines may be associated with much negative sentiments, but they are only scary when you’re looking forward to them. Once you’ve passed them, they are actually quite sweet, especially if you know that you’ve done well.

Accomplishments are exhilarating. There’s worth and value in working, expending tireless efforts towards a goal, and obtaining what you had set out to do. Nothing boosts the morale like getting something done.

The danger lies in going too far on this “doing” track that you derive self value and worth solely from what you do. I feel like living in America, this is often the case. One of the first questions people ask is, “What do you do?” We measure people’s worth by how productive they are and how hard-working they are. While this does reflect a certain aspect of people’s character, it’s not the end of the story.

Perhaps because I come from the Eastern part of the world, I used to find it strange when people answer the question “How was your day?” with “It was productive.” It took me a few years to get used to that, because somehow in my mind, productivity was not a measure of how good a day is. If someone had asked me that question in Indonesia (and I don’t know whether this is still true today or not) and if I had answered “It was productive”, the person would look at me and say, “So? Is that good or bad?” A busy and productive day is not necessarily a good day, since a vacation day when I don’t have to work would be better! Few people work for work itself; people work for vacation. Now things have changed quite a bit – I’ve grown to put value in productivity, and whether that’s good or bad is debatable.

Too much work and not enough “being” will cause bitterness, because you’ll feel that others only want you for what they can get out of you. If you work in any secular setting especially, this feels like your reality. The world doesn’t care about your soul, only your productivity. You get rewarded for your productivity. In most cases, you’re not entirely indispensable and you’re not irreplaceable either. It’s sad, I know (don’t get depressed just yet though).

It is impossible to get the highest level of fulfillment from this machinery model. Bitterness, or a love-hate (mostly hate) relationship with work, is what I consider the saturation point in “doing.”

The Need to Be

If you’re at that first saturation point, it means that you need some time to rest, spend some time in quietness, and just …be. I don’t mean being in a vacuum, but being with God, the One who knows the purpose of your life and the true value of your personhood. Keep the Sabbath. It is a powerful cure to counter the grip of the world on your life, it will restore and replenish the drying well of the soul. No one should work nonstop at the expense of his soul.

Yet, the need to be is even deeper than this. We don’t need to rest because we’re tired; we need to rest because it’s part of thread in the fabric of humanity. The history of humankind begins with resting and being with God; man’s first day was the Sabbath day. They rested not because they were tired; it was purely to be with God, to experience wonder and to be awed by the glorious Creator. We need rest, a rest in God, because that’s just how we’re made to be.

I feel this need in a very real way. Even though I love what I do, especially in the context of ministry, I need to know that I’m appreciated as a human being, appreciated for who I am. It means that even if I bombed and completely failed in my work, it’s not like I’ve lost all reason to exist and someone can just exterminate me. This is why the Sabbath is glorious. God wants to spend time with me; He appreciates me for who I am.

In the book, Man is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion by the ever so insightful Abraham Joshua Heschel, he writes:

Animals are content when their needs are satisfied; man insists not only on being satisfied but also on being able to satisfy, on being a need not only on having needs. Personal needs come and go, but one anxiety remains: Am I needed? There is no man who has not been moved by that anxiety.

That need to be needed is true not only in the realms of work, i.e., one is needed to fulfill a job, but also in the realms of being, i.e., one is needed just for his presence.

Yet, there is a saturation point for this too. “Being” too much = nothing gets done. It may be a cop-out for laziness, and while it may feel great at first, it will get boring after a while and you’ll feel useless. That feeling of uselessness is one of the most demoralizing things ever.

So…

When we work together, especially in ministry, I think we need to ensure the well-being and the well-doing of each other. It means that we cannot excuse laziness, because it is in a person’s best interest to actually accomplish things in his life. We need to motivate each other to do and find fulfillment in the tasks that pertain to ministry, but appreciate the personhood of each individual at the same time. How’s that to be done? Something to think about…

Love and Commitment

The assurance of a calling is a precious thing indeed. This year, after two years of asking God why, I saw and understood with clarity why I am where I am right now, with all prevailing circumstances, as if a portion of faith truly became sight. There is no shadow of doubt in my mind that I am where I need to be, doing what I’m supposed to do, and it is a marvelous feeling to have this assurance as spiritual bedrock in my life.

Yet, it turns out that having this assurance is not all there is to it, because even though the assurance exists, it doesn’t mean that it feels marvelous in a sparkly and fireworks-y kind of way every day.

There are days when the assurance feels glorious. Usually, its first revelation heralds the honeymoon phase where your soul swells in gratitude every moment of your being. I’m glad to say, however, that once the honeymoon phase is over, these days still happen a lot. But there are the other days, when the sparkles and the magical dust settle, and you are left with the small and seemingly mundane things, and the question of faithfulness has nothing to do with your feeling or mood. On these days, the thought of your calling may elicit reactions such as the terrible “Ugh..” To make matters worse, you are tempted to look around and compare your calling with others’, and you end up transgressing the tenth commandment in a paradoxically sanctified (but not) kind of way, namely coveting other people’s calling.

Discontentment is like yeast. It starts with something so small, like a discouraging thought or a carelessly spoken word, but it can leaven an entire lump of spiritual life. But thankfully, unlike leavened bread, this spiritual leavening is not irreversible. And I think, the remedy for this condition, or even better, a way to avoid this whole thing, is a potion called love and commitment.

The thing that makes a calling grand is not so much in the calling itself, but in the Person behind the calling. He’s the reason why I responded to the calling in the first place. And so every day that I live, especially on those non-sparkly days, I need to remember my first love and renew my commitment. It is the Lord whom I have loved and committed my life to, and so whatever He says, I will do. He’s the One I love, for better and for worse, in sickness and in health, and my love for the calling will come naturally via my love to the Person. “Every burden is light, for the yoke that Christ imposes is easy. Duty becomes a delight, and sacrifice a pleasure. The path that before seemed shrouded in darkness, becomes bright with beams from the Sun of Righteousness.” (Steps to Christ, p. 59) I think this is what Jesus meant by “if you love me, keep my commandments.” (John 14:15) Why of course, if you love someone, why wouldn’t you want to do everything that this person says?

There is something about re-expressing love and commitment verbally to the object of one’s affection that heals and silences questions in the heart. It gives one strength to bear hardships no matter what happens. So, why wouldn’t I do it every day?

…Obedience is not a mere outward compliance, but the service of love… Obedience—the service and allegiance of love—is the true sign of discipleship.” (Steps to Christ, p. 60)

The Edge of a Dream

What is it like

to wake up from your musing

to find the mist clearing up before your eyes

and see glimpses of the world beyond

What is it like

to stand at the edge of a dream

to discover that reality looks somewhat familiar

because you’ve seen it in your sleep

What is it like

to realize that talks of changing the world in times past

are not so far-fetched after all

and your hands can seize and mold the presence

What is it like

to awaken with a thrill in your heart

to feel its reverberation in your soul

and find that these are the days

when life is better than dreams