There’s been a lot of conversation lately about burnout, particularly among millennials. I recently listened to a moving discussion about this on NPR’s On Point. The program featured Anne Helen Peterson, author of Buzzfeed’s viral article "How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation," and Tiana Clark, author of an article in response called "This Is What Black Burnout Feels Like." They talked about what burnout is like, giving an intersectional perspective to a common experience.
Peterson writes, “That’s one of the most ineffable and frustrating expressions of burnout: It takes things that should be enjoyable and flattens them into a list of tasks, intermingled with other obligations that should either be easily or dutifully completed. The result is that everything, from wedding celebrations to registering to vote, becomes tinged with resentment and anxiety and avoidance.”
Clark writes, “for millennials of color, not only do we have to combat endless emails and Slack notifications, but we also get strapped with having to prove our humanity inside and outside of the workplace and classroom, often by circumspectly navigating the tears of white women. It’s doubly (triply?) exhausting. But in all the hullabaloo about burnout, who is really allowed to take a break?”
These powerful words reallly touched me. I'm not a millennial or a person of color, so I am grateful to know more about how millennials with a diversity of identities experience burnout. As a white sister on the younger end of Gen X, I recognize that my life experiences and privileges are different, and so burnout for me may stem from another place. As the youngest member of a community, which, like almost every other religious community, is getting smaller, I feel pressure, mostly from myself. If I don’t work hard enough or do all the right things, what will become of us?! It’s not my job to bear the burden of our uncertain future, but sometimes I take that on, at least in my head. When life is too programmed or I lie awake at night worrying about the future, small things feel like a big deal and fun things feel like work.
I don't have a solution for burnout. However, as in most things, I take my cue from Jesus.
So, there he is at this Wedding. When they run out of wine, his mom asks him to do something about it. Although he refuses at first, he ultimately turns water into the best wine they’ve tasted. Why does he save the day? After all, it’s not a life or death situation – it’s a bar emergency – and he’s there to have fun. Can’t someone else do a beer run? Is he turning a party into a work thing?
Who knows why? Maybe he feels responsible – maybe he and his wild friends partied so hard they created the wine shortage in the first place. Maybe it's just because his mother said so. Or, maybe he wanted to do something simply for the sake of joy.
If you think about it, this is Jesus’ debut (at least in the Gospel of John). As his first foray into his mission, this is what adulting looks like for him. In this Gospel, Jesus does signs rather than miracles, and every sign he does reflects his power and divinity. The sign at Cana is not frivolous. It reflects the beautiful, delicious, and abundant joy that God wants for us. Jesus shows us that doing something simply for the sake of joy is worth it.
This holds true for us, too. We don’t do signs like Jesus does, but what we do is a sign of who we are. What if we are called to do some things, not because of our To Do lists, but simply for the sake of evoking joy for ourselves and for other people?
What brings you joy? In truth, a good glass of wine does bring me joy. As does laughing with friends or a spontaneous dance party in my living room with my four nieces. Hosting a gathering brings me joy, if I can stop worrying about perfection and focus on my guests.
Joy will not evaporate burnout. It won’t tackle our To Do lists. Making wine at someone's wedding will not change the world or even guarantee a good marriage. But what if pausing for joy can help us breathe a little better? It won't solve our problems, but it could make us happier while we go about the work of resolving our To Do lists. Truly, those lists aren’t almighty. They don’t define us or our lives, unless we let them. I don’t know about you, but I want my life to be defined by my relationships, by compassion and showing up for other people, by love, and, of course, joy.
So, raise an imaginary (or real) glass with me: Here’s to life! Here’s to love! Here’s to going off script every now and then to create joy! Santé!
By Sister Leslie Keener, CDP