This piece is about motivation, inspiration, drive, and energy. It’s about their loss and their return. This is also about tiredness, and humanness, and honesty. This is a conviction and an empathy. It’s about the rhythm of nature, and our perpetual inhale and exhale. It’s about the rhythm of you my friend. Yes, you have one.
I’m tired, truly. So are many who work with me. We’ve shared a dense, long year of striving within crafts we love. But no matter how complete our devotion, or divine our call, or hot our passion, we’re only people, and people get tired.
May I ask, what is it like to be you today my friend? Do you feel like you should be doing something else more productive, more innovative, more ambitious than reading this slow beginning? Perhaps you’re fresh and fiery, committed and consistent, driven and tireless… is that what you’re telling me? But, you’re still following my words as they turn, as they pause between my breaths, and yours. I think you’ve stopped to breathe? For the first time in awhile have you stopped?
How does it feel to stop? How long does it take for angst to rise? Already, is your list of undone tasks clattering down like the clack, clack, clack of an old train schedule changing? Is that list insisting that you attend to them or you’ll miss something; you’ll get left behind. Are you ashamed that you’ve stopped? Have you looked around to see who might have noticed the time you’re wasting? Have you closed your door a hair? Do you have your mask ready? You know, that bright smile that you showed me when I knocked on your door. The one that covers the effort required to produce it? Are you sharp within a constant current of obligation that demands enthusiasm?
I see you, fellow person. I see how hard you’re trying. You’re in there behind the smiles and the shining – it’s ok to be real. It’s ok to be tired, and afraid of that tired, and to need something to help you, and to not know what you need. This lull in your interest, this veil on your clarity, the ebb and flow of your breathing, the ebb in the flow of your energy; it’s ok- how you feel.
Happiness gets a great deal of hype. But motivation – ah, isn’t that what we’re craving? Especially those of us in performance focused fields? Motivation - the ripple of its resonance, the intensity of its taste – sweet, sweet desire. How badly do you want to want to do what you need to do? To set forth eagerly, your attention propelled by – or should I say, compelled by an irresistible force.
But nothing is always this way, no matter how much we love it. The drive described above, it’s in moments, sometimes many of them, but not all of them, and not everyday. These crafts we love, the fire dies sometimes; the blaze becomes an ember. Once in awhile the fire goes out. What do these cool coals say about you? You wouldn’t still be reading if you couldn’t sense a problem, if you hadn’t heard that fatigue says something concerning about a person.
Yes, there’s a belief that fatigue is the foe here. Subtle, subversive, sinister, below the surface, you know that a lack of motivation is a weakness to be overcome. And, indifference, and apathy, oh apathy – this affliction in particular – the most dreaded symptom of a person whose worthiness is now suspect. Everyone knows that this is someone whose commitment should be questioned, who just might not belong. You’re tired? Your care has dwindled? Then you might not have what it takes.
I’m exhausted now. That last paragraph took it out of me. Maybe it was the severity of the suggestions, or my struggle with the flow, or maybe it was the act of writing a lie. I wrote a lie, you know…
The truth is that most fatigue means one thing – you’ve given enormously of yourself. You’ve given. And you’ve received. You’ve received the fruits of efforts, and the gains of exertion. Now your healthy body and mind are calling to care for you. You must let them. Nothing that lives and grows maintains a constant rate of motion. Your breath now, your very breath – is here, then gone, then here, then gone. The sun itself, the light and night – the constancy of any of these would spell our doom. The rhythm of the living, of the healthy, and the giving, rises and falls, recedes and comes. There is no other way. And there never was.
In her enormously popular TED Talk, social psychologist, Brene Brown explains that humans are “wired for struggle.” Brown’s intent is to encourage us to meet challenges bravely. But, Brown has also coined the phrase, exhaustion as a status symbol, Which describes the current societal belief that the busier you are, the more important you must be.
“To be really honest with you, I don’t think it’s doable. The expectations of what we can get done, and how well we can do it, are beyond human scale,” Brene explains in her conversation with the Washington Post. Brown has closely studied those she calls “whole-hearted” people, scrupulously examining their ways. “One of the things I found was the importance of rest and play, and the willingness to let go of exhaustion as a status symbol and productivity as self-worth.” The most whole-hearted people adhere to rest and play. But are these whole- hearted people successful? Doesn’t a person need to out work everyone else to stand apart? Shouldn’t one spend countless hours perfecting every detail in order to achieve the best outcomes?
Brown says otherwise: “When I interviewed really successful leaders, what I expected to hear was a lot of perfectionism. But what I heard consistently was, ‘I do not attribute my success to perfectionism. In fact, it’s the thing that I have to watch the most, because it will stop me from getting work done.’ Healthy striving is about striving for internal goals, and wanting to be our best selves.”
So why the angst, and the doubt, the closed door, and the lowered eyes? Why should this conversation be our secret? I think this mistake is well-meant. There’s hope at the heart of it. The idea that you should produce and perform on a relentless rise, well, that’s just faith in human strength. The pressures, the expectations, the aspirations, these arise from belief. They’re children of imagination and hope. Each is a beautiful and necessary quality. Don’t give yourself too hard a time for believing you’re miraculous. You are. But, believing you’re miraculous doesn’t make you less human, and, inexorably, humans are caught in a tide and a rhythm – it’s ebb and flow. Which means inevitably sometimes we’re in the ebb of the flow.
But, there’s more than hope that fuels our fear of fatigue, and our resistance to rest. Brown explains, “I don’t want to dismiss the fact that people are fearful, but, you know, one of the biggest shame triggers at work for us is relevance. Our fear is that we’ll be perceived as not relevant or not necessary.” So, our fear is that if we admit to fatigue, if we need a break and take one, we could discover that we are not needed or of particular value in our workplace.
So how do we ease these fears of rest? How can people feel assured of their relevance, even after time taken to rejuvenate? Brown explains that great leaders model the permission to rest: “to me, a leader is someone who holds her- or himself accountable for finding potential in people and processes. And so what I think is really important is sustainability. The other piece is, we have to encourage people to set boundaries around their work and respect them when they hold them. And I think as leaders we have to model that.” Leaders need to rest, so that those who follow them can also.
What happens if you surrender to the wave of this moment? What is it like to pause in the ebb. You might feel aimless for awhile. That’s a hard place to be; I know it. I’m there. But I’m also finding space to breathe on my cool embers. When we stand in a crossroad, looking for our way, we have no choice but to release long exhalations of care. And as I do so, I’m admitting with some hesitancy, I’m tired, and I suppose I’m resting. I’m hoping that by giving myself permission to rest, perhaps you will do the same. We’re in good company. We’re following wise authority - the sun and the seasons, the tides, and our breathing.
I’m grateful that I can rest. Sometimes a break is not possible. The torment of burnout from under heavy demands is a particularly cruel prison. Panic can flourish here, and fear. Also, frustration, resentment, and desperation. “My quiet friend who has come so far, let this breathing make more space around you…” If you can’t breathe for long, just breathe once. Make that space. Then, notice the energy in your emotions. There’s power in your panic, and quickness in your fear. There’s a fierce resolve in deep frustration. Someone wise once told me that even some evil contains goodness, because it has energy. So, drink it fiercely my tired friend, if you must.
Then please rest. Or, one day the tide will pull you under. Yet even then, whether we stop by choice or by catastrophe, energy always returns. Energy renews within the most powerful forces on earth, and in you.
About the Author
Shannon Thompson is a mental performance consultant who specializes in high performance sport. Shannon holds a Masters of Applied Positive Psychology degree from the University of Pennsylvania.
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