October 15, 2017

A Slow Burn(out)

Everywhere you look there are young people trying to change the world. They are starting their own businesses while raising young children, achieving advanced degrees, inventing new and improved stuff, working to save the environment, running for office, and renovating crumbling houses (at least on TV). While their energetic output is encouraging and inspiring, and their earnestness is heartwarming it also sets off some alarm bells, at least in me. I used to be one of those people. My goal was to make people in my former small community appreciate and value the role of the arts in their everyday lives, and I worked hard volunteering my time to help make that happen. I also worked from home to make some extra income and volunteered at my church.  I did all this while raising four active children, running to stay fit, and cooking like mad. My thirties were a whirlwind of gratifying, caffeine-fueled community involvement and motherly ambition. My early forties were a slow decline into burnout. Let this post serve as a gentle warning to my young friends.

Burnout is real and, in my experience, happens when you begin to be unable to separate your 'self' from your 'work'. We are so busy in this Western Hemisphere trying to become so many things. Much of this ambition is good. We should aspire to grow, to learn, to strive for a better world, but we also need to simply be ourselves sometimes. We need to protect our peace of mind from too much intrusion, which is difficult in this age of social media and subsequent addiction. Social media nags us continually to DO SOMETHING. Yes, the world has needs, but they are endless. We can all do our bit but none of us can do everything - the treadmill was once a form of punishment for a reason. Gone are the days when simply enjoying oneself was a worthwhile goal, and I am sad about that, for enjoying oneself with the simple pleasures of life can reap great rewards, fend off depression, and spread ripples of good feeling around us. I recently read (for probably the fifth time) Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence. My aunt loaned me the DVD of the televised version and I am making my way through the series now. A Year in Provence is a funny, delightful account of Peter and his wife retiring from successful, but high stress careers in London and moving to the South of France where they restore a two-hundred year old stone farmhouse and spend their days eating, drinking, walking their dogs and getting to know the local culture and characters in the Luberon Valley. Not everything is ideal at all times for the couple, but they embrace their new life and Peter continues to write popular books for the great enjoyment of others around the world. His books exude a sense of having time for others without agenda, of experiencing life with all the five senses, of not taking oneself too seriously, and of laughter being, in fact, the best medicine. The point I am trying to make is Peter Mayle is an educated man and a gifted writer but he doesn't produce his beloved stories by beating himself over the head for not 'doing enough' and being miserable. Quite the opposite.

We all have gifts and most of us must work to pay the bills. Fully recognizing how to use those gifts and figuring out what work to do is sometimes a long road. Many of us learn by trial and error. In my own case,  and living in a city with a large homeless population, I recognize my desire to help the less fortunate, especially the homeless. Some days I honestly feel like the homeless are my sole responsibility, but I am wrong and must guard against these feelings because I know they stem from personal guilt that I have a nice place to live and my fellow citizens pushing those laden shopping carts do not. The desire to help others should never come from guilt. It should come from a more positive feeling of wanting to share. Guilt may be the impetus but it should not be the reason. The amazing helpers such as the Union Gospel Mission, Covenant House and others in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver are not able to carry on doing what they do simply out of guilt. They do it out of love, and that is what keeps them going. They have a special kind of grace to do the work they do and I would hope their work makes them happy and fulfilled and energized most days, not drained and left feeling perpetually vulnerable and raw. At this stage in my life, guarded against burnout, and recovering from some heavy personal stuff, I give my homeless neighbours spare change, smiles, greetings and hopefully some dignity. For now, that is all the emotional energy I can spare, and recognizing this is no small thing.

I leave this post with one prevailing thought:

October 7, 2017

Not a Thanksgiving Post

A couple of years ago I took the required FoodSafe course for my job. It was offered twice a year at our local recreation facility and the session I took was taught by a former chef who was now semi-retired and touring around the region giving courses and teaching on call for a local university cooking program. The length of the course was, if I remember correctly, six hours long with breaks. With the aid of videos the instructor talked us through all the various chapters of the workbook. The course material was not all that challenging. Much of it was common sense, so between chapters we were treated to several tales from our Swiss-born chef-instructor's years cooking in various places around the world as well as a great deal of lecturing on healthy eating. (North America has it all wrong, did you know?) Many of us engaged in the discussions and at one point I brought up the fact that I make my own granola. Oh no! said he. You don't cook oats! That kills all the good nutrients in them! You soak oats and always eat them raw. He also lectured us on sugar consumption and how none of us needed any sugar not naturally found in fruits and other foods. I, feeling a little bit smaller with my ruined oats, carried on with the course work in between his mini-lectures, and before long, it was time for a break. Most of the students stood up and went outside. I was organizing my bag of snacks and lunch stuff when I happened to glance up and see our instructor cavalierly and within full view peeling the wrapper off none other than a Nature Valley granola bar, chock full of sugar and corn syrup, and yes, BAKED in an oven. Despite my 'shock and horror', we finished the last chapters and took our test. I passed with flying colours and achieved my certificate.

I have often wondered what kind of strange thought pattern allows a person to rage against some particular habit only to turn around (and in the chef's case blatantly) take part in it. Was it Mr. Chef's cheat day? Did he suffer from low blood sugar? Perhaps, but he knew I was staring at his granola bar and yet he offered no explanation. I was left thinking of him as a complete hypocrite.

When I was growing up one phrase I heard often was 'Do what I say, not what I do.' How I was baffled by it when I was young. Did certain people in positions of authority get a pass when it came to hypocritical actions? Perhaps we were only meant we should take the good from what people say and ignore the instances when they, themselves, go against their own direction. I suppose we are all hypocritical sometimes. Tired parents often yell at their kids to stop yelling. Most dental hygienists probably eat sugar at some point in their day (I know this to be true because my daughter worked at a dental office for three years and saw a lot of cake and hot chocolate consumed). Doctors probably don't take their own advice all of the time. Dads are famous for chastising their teenagers for being lazy while they, themselves, sit in front of the football game all afternoon and procrastinate on all the chores to be done around the house.

When celebrities and other famous people prove to be hypocrites we get angry, sometimes rightfully so. The comedian with the great family TV show ends up being a sex predator. The ultra survivor man ends up, against all appearances on his reality TV show, spending each night in a luxury hotel with heat and hot water. America's sweetheart is revealed as a drug addict. The politician campaigns on a promise and gets our votes only to backtrack once in power. And on, and on, and on.

The worst part about being on the receiving end of hypocrisy is the feeling of being robbed. We were led to believe something about a person and built up a level of trust and commitment to them and what they represented, only for that to be yanked away like a ripped off Bandaid leaving pain and even some scarring. I have reached the point where I hold new people I either meet or become interested in due to their work in the public eye with some emotional distance until they prove at least to be relatively constant. Sad, isn't it? But, perhaps safer on the heart. Maybe others do the same with me. I don't make friends as quickly as I used to.

But dammit, I still make granola every week. So there.