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Turns out it’s not so easy. Many influences in our lives, both within and without, keep us stuck in passivity. In fact, there are so many roadblocks and distractions, it’s a wonder people do as much as they do! Here’s a partial list of the things that get in the way:
Barrier 1: Fear
We’re afraid of all kinds of things, and that fear keeps us stuck.
- We’re afraid of failure…
- We’re afraid of what other people might think…
- We’re afraid of change…
- We’re afraid that we won’t have enough time to do the work we want to do…
- We’re afraid we won’t have enough money…
The list is endless.
You might think that having more information would help dispel your fears, but that’s not how it works. Especially today. Much of the “information” we’re exposed to is in the form of sensationalist media, which preys on our fears in order to capture our attention. The more attention we give to this kind of information, the more frightening and dangerous the world appears.
It can be helpful to have vast amounts of knowledge available to us, but it can also be debilitating. For most of recorded history, people were only aware of the circumstances of a small tribe or nation of people — the people in their own immediate area. But now we have access to information about people and nations all around the world.
At any given time, somewhere around the world, somebody is going through unimaginable tragedy and suffering. And because the “news” is mostly fixated on problems, tragedies, and violence, if there are bad things going on somewhere, we’ll find out about it.
The more media we are exposed to, the more bad news we take in. The more bad news we take in, the bigger and more unsolvable the problems seem to be, and the more there is to worry about.
The result of all this? We sit behind our screens and smartphones, overwhelmed by fears of problems and tragedies that might happen to us. We stay in our own sheltered, safe environment, watching more bad news, shaking our heads about how bad things are “out there,” and repeat the process. Our fears keep us stuck. (More on this point later.)
Barrier 2: Distractions
There are so many things that pull us away from our goals: movies to watch, television shows to keep up on, social media to interact with, video games to play, web sites to surf. We want to leave our mark in the world, but then we realize there are new episodes of our favorite show, so we watch them instead of taking the next step toward our dreams.
Instead of pursuing our own dreams and changing the world for the better, we sit passively, watching other people live out their dreams in movies, reality shows, sporting events, YouTube videos, and social media posts.
ARE YOU REALLY HAPPY
OR JUST REALLY COMFORTABLE?
In ancient Rome, the ruling class came up with the idea of holding gladiator contests as a way to keep the populace busy and distracted. These games took up people’s time and energy, reducing the likelihood of political unrest by distracting the citizens from creating problems for those in power.
Regardless of how intentional the Romans were, you have to recognize what an ingenious and cynical strategy this is. Keep people busy and distracted watching the games, and they’re less likely to realize how empty their own lives are, and/or do anything about it. In other words, keep them so busy and distracted with entertainment that they don’t feel the need to change the world.
It’s virtually impossible for any social movement to take off today:
there’s too much good stuff on TV, too many sporting events
to watch, and too much social media to keep up on.
You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to see how this could apply in our culture today. This could be happening, even without a mysterious, uber-powerful group orchestrating events from their secret lodge. Instead, think of our society as a system — a system that’s too complex for any small group to control, but a system nonetheless. In our system today, one key factor keeps the status quo in place: Everybody is busy and distracted by the entertainment that’s available to them. It’s virtually impossible for any social movement to take off today: there’s too much good stuff on TV, too many sporting events to watch, too many movies to go to.
Barrier 3: Demands
It’s not simply a matter of being distracted by entertainment. We’re busy trying to make ends meet. This is where many of us get caught in the trap of overwhelm: Our lives are so full doing the things we think need to be done that there is no time or energy left for anything else. Our lives are so full of work for our career, errands, healthcare, and home management, at the end of the day we have no time or energy left.
It feels like a vicious cycle: We’re killing ourselves and getting stressed out with tasks during the week, so that on the weekend (which seems to be getting shorter and shorter), we’re too tired and depleted to do the creative and challenging work of serving others. And on those weekends where we’re not too depleted? We fill those with travel to visit extended family, sporting events for the kids, and various homeowner tasks that need to be done.
“Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work
and driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for —
in order to get to the job you need to pay for the clothes
and the car, and the house you leave vacant all day
so you can afford to live in it.”
– Ellen Goodman
Stay tuned: this is part one of a two part series! Next time I’ll share four more factors that get in the way of us making our mark in the world.
By the way … this is an excerpt from my forthcoming book,
“Leaving Your Mark Without Losing Your Soul.”
Look for it later this year.
We need more solitude in our lives — not just for our own well-being, but for others. Talking about this is tricky today, because many people struggle with loneliness and isolation, and the pursuit of solitude could make things worse for them.
Our lives revolve around two poles: community and solitude. A healthy life includes both. Let’s be clear about that as we begin. Rabbi Eliezer Shore describes this balance:
“Most true spiritual seekers, at some time in their journey, must struggle with the dilemma posed by these two opposites [community and solitude]. While personalities differ, tending some towards solitude, others to community, most of us waver uneasily between the two, constantly searching for the proper balance in which we might best serve God. … An emphasis on community in no way denies the validity of solitude, rather it seeks to engage the contemplative in an even higher purpose, namely, that of bringing the entire community into an enlightened relationship with God.”
Some people tend toward isolation, and their need is to nurture more healthy relationships. Several years ago I wrote an article in Leadership Journal about this need for spiritual leaders. What’s true for spiritual leaders is true for many others as well: we struggle to develop healthy relationships, which creates challenges in our pursuit of healthy solitude.
Then Why is Solitude so Important?
For many reasons, but here I am going to focus on just one: we need solitude in order to know ourselves, to come to clarity about what we think and believe; so that, as we move out to relate with others, we can bring our thoughts and perspectives into the relationship, and not simply be absorbed into the thinking, relating, and value patterns of those around us. This allows us to be interdependent without being codependent. Continue reading Why WE Need YOU to Have More Solitude and Quiet
Most of us have too much stuff and try to do too much. Simplifying can lower our stress. If we’re in recovery, simplifying life is important, because stress and chaos lead to relapse. If our lives are too full and overloaded, it only makes sense that cutting some things out and simplifying will be part of the solution. They will help us have happier, more fruitful lives.
But if simplifying becomes our ultimate goal,
we’re never going to be happy,
and we’re going to miss out
on opportunities that make life meaningful.
Anything worthwhile is likely to be stressful, time-consuming, and will complicate our lives. If simplifying and lowering our stress is our primary goal, we will have to stop doing many important things, because they make life complicated.
What do you cut?
Here’s a scenario that has played out many times in my work as a pastor: A person in the church is volunteering in a ministry and doing a great job. But they are feeling too busy and overwhelmed and feel the need to simplify their lives. Guess what is the first thing they cut out of life in order to “simplify”? Of course: their volunteer work in the church.
Meanwhile, they’re working at a job they hate, with working conditions and expectations that are out of control, and/or they are caught in demanding, dysfunctional relationships where they spend inordinate amounts of time trying to please people who are perpetually unhappy, and/or they are gone many weekends pursuing sports and other activities for their kids, and/or they’re watching a ton of TV.
But when they realize that they are too busy and stressed out, the thing they pull back from is the volunteering they do to help other people. They let go of the thing that is easiest to step away from, but it is also likely the key area that has the potential to make their lives fruitful and fulfilling.
Engaging in service doesn’t simplify life, but makes it meaningful
I don’t normally respond to people who comment on my writing. I used to be diligent about this, but now I don’t have enough time. However, I’m making an exception here, because the following comment from a reader of my email newsletter raises a helpful and important distinction. The reader’s comment was about a quote from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. First, here’s the quote:
“It is very important that you only do what you love to do. You may be poor, you may go hungry, you may lose your car, you may have to move into a shabby place to live, but you will totally live. And at the end of your days you will bless your life because you have done what you came here to do.
“Otherwise, you will live your life as a prostitute, you will do things only for a reason, to please other people, and you will never have lived. and you will not have a pleasant death.”
— Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
If you are seeking to do important work in the world, but feel overwhelmed by it, this is for you. If you are challenged by anxiety and stress, and struggle to balance your service with the rest of your life, this is for you. If you want to lower your stress level without lowering your performance level, this is for you.
What: Free Teleseminar / Webinar (you can access audio only by phone, or also see video)
When: Wednesday, June 7
Time: 7:00pm – 8:30pm (central time)
Here’s what you will learn:
In writing the book “Not so Overwhelmed: changing the world without wrecking your life” I’ve been struck by the presence of paradox in so many aspects of the spiritual life. As a Christian leader I’m focusing the book on spiritually minded people who want to do good in the world.
But here’s the question: Do you want to not be overwhelmed, or do you want to do good in the world?
“Wanting to do good in the world” is often what puts us in situations where we feel overwhelmed. The solution for being overwhelmed might seem to be “cut back and do less” … but on the other hand, isn’t doing things to change the world our goal? Somehow we’ve got to deal with this tension: The Bible promises that followers of Jesus will have a “peace that passes understanding”, yet sometimes following God’s call into serving others brings more challenges, not less.
One of the dangers along the spiritual path is viewing God’s work in our lives primarily — and even exclusively — as a healing journey. Pushed to the extreme, this archetype can create the expectation that the purpose of God’s work in our lives is to make
the hard things in our lives easier, to make the painful things go away. It doesn’t always work like this.
As I say later in the book, rather than make our lives easier, simpler, and more comfortable, sometimes following our calling and being open to God’s work our lives makes things harder and more complicated.
Author Belden Lane writes about the insights we can gain from ancient monks, nomads, and pilgrims living in the desert. This collected body of wisdom is often referred to as “desert spirituality.” Desert spirituality is focused on having a meaningful spiritual life even in the midst of challenges and hardship. Here’s what Lane writes:
“My fear is that much of what we call ‘spirituality’ today is overly sanitized and sterile, far removed from the anguish of pain, the anchoredness of place. Without the tough-minded discipline of desert-mountain experience, spirituality loses its bite, its capacity to speak prophetically to its culture, its demand for justice. Avoiding pain and confrontation, it makes no demands, assumes no risks. … It resists every form of desert perversity, dissolving at last into a spirituality that protects its readers from the vulnerability it was meant to provoke. The desert, in the end, will have none of it.
“One of the scourges of our age is that all our deities are house-broken and eminently companionable. Far from demanding anything, they ask only how they can more meaningfully enhance the lives of those they serve.”
The paradox here is that being followers of Jesus actually does make our lives better, easier, more full. We do experience the “peace that passes understanding.” At the same time, being followers of Jesus sometimes takes us into desert places, hard places. It helps us overcome overwhelm, and in contributes to overwhelm in its own way.
In her book Soul of a Pilgrim, modern mystic and “urban monk” Christine Valters Paintner writes: “Sometimes we need to be uncomfortable. Sometimes we need to remember a God of wilderness who calls us beyond our edges to a landscape where we might discover a passion and vitality we never knew we could experience….Developing the capacity to endure and remain open to difficult feelings is part of the movement toward spiritual maturity.”
This is not a tension that is ever resolved in this life. Following Jesus simplifies, but also complicates our lives. The work of God in our lives brings inner peace, even as this work also creates challenges of its own. Maybe the simplest — and most honest — promise we can make is this: Following Jesus will make our lives better, but not necessarily easier.
Leadership is hard, but we make it harder by our own missteps. Leadership is challenging, but we make things worse when we don’t honor the limits of our bodies and souls. Leadership involves making hard choices, and dealing with conflict, but we make things worse if we don’t practice self-care. Instead we wind up fatigued, reactive, short-tempered, and feeling victimized by our role.
Just because we are leaders doesn’t mean we have to be martyrs.
Leadership is hard enough … let’s not make it harder. Let’s not glorify suffering, and delude ourselves into thinking there is spiritual merit in overwork. Jesus withdrew from the crowds when he needed to, and arranged his ministry in phases of deep engagement, and times apart from the crowds and busyness. We should too.
Melodie Beattie has a great meditation in her book “The Language of Letting Go” that encourages people to let go of the martyr archetype. Listen to what she has to say:
No one likes a martyr.
How do we feel around martyrs? Guilty, angry, trapped, negative, and anxious to get away.
Somehow, many of us have developed the belief that depriving ourselves, not taking care of ourselves, being a victim, and suffering needlessly will get us what we want.
It is our job to notice our abilities, our strengths, and take care of ourselves by developing and acting on them.
It is our job to notice our pain and weariness and appropriately take care of ourselves.
It is our job to notice our deprivation, too, and begin to take steps to give ourselves abundance. It begins inside of us, by changing what we believe we deserve, by giving up our deprivation and treating ourselves the way we deserve to be treated.
Life is hard, but we don’t have to make it more difficult by neglecting ourselves. There is no glory in suffering, only suffering. Our pain will not stop when a rescuer comes, but when we take responsibility for ourselves and stop our own pain.
Today, I will be my own rescuer. I will stop waiting for someone else to work through my issues and solve my problems for me.
Some of that might ring true for you, some might not. That’s okay. Look to God for help in dealing with your challenges, but remember that God won’t magically rescue us from ourselves. We’ll get into trouble if we don’t put ourselves in places where we can receive strength and grace (ie. if we don’t take time to spend in silence, in retreat, and in supportive community.)
Nobody will put the brakes on for you. Only you can decide to slow down and cut back on your commitments. Nobody will step up to the plate for your self-care if you are not willing to make it a priority for yourself.
Of course this is not to suggest that we become lazy and self-absorbed. We will still have to work hard. We will get tired. We will face challenges. But leadership is more like an long race than a crucifixion. Except for extreme situations, it will tire you out, but not kill you.
Come down off that cross. Chances are, God isn’t calling you to be up there anyway.
His fame spread far and wide, for he was greatly helped until he became powerful.
But after Uzziah became powerful, his pride led to his downfall. He was unfaithful to the Lord his God.
(2 Chronicles 26:15-16)
In the past year, five of my friends who are pastors have lost their ministries because of moral failure.
Most of them were widely known beyond their local contexts as authors, conference speakers, movement leaders and such. From the outside, they appeared to be at their peak.
For reasons beyond my ability to understand, God has graciously protected me from moral collapse over the years. Knowing the fragility and fickleness of my own heart, sometimes I marvel at how this could be the case. Why them and not me? Sometimes I wonder if, under different circumstances, I, too, could collapse morally. As the famous hymn goes, “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it…” Indeed, I feel my proneness to wander every single day.
When I was a seminary student, an older, seasoned pastor spoke in a chapel service and said,“Some of you are very gifted. You aspire to do great things in ministry one day. God have mercy on you.” Eighteen years later, I am beginning to understand what he meant by that.
And do you seek great things for yourself? Seek them not.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the great Baptist “Prince of Preachers,” once told his students that if they could be happy doing something besides ministry, they should do it. I’m sure there were several reasons why Spurgeon gave this advice. But the reason his advice makes sense to me is because…
Being a pastor is hard.
One day in my mid-twenties, while studying to become a pastor, I came across a suicide note published in the local newspaper…written by a pastor, which included this excerpt:
God forgive me for not being any stronger than I am. But when a minister becomes clinically depressed, there are very few places where he can turn to for help…it feels as if I’m sinking farther and farther into a downward spiral of depression. I feel like a drowning man, trying frantically to lift up my head to take just one more breath. But one way or another, I know I am going down.
The writer was a promising young pastor—still in his thirties—of a large “resource” church in Saint Louis, Missouri. Having secretly battled depression for a long time, and having sought help through Scripture reading, prayer, therapy, and medication, his will to claw through yet another day was gone. In his darkest hour, the young promising pastor decided he would rather join the angels than continue facing demons for years to come.
Some of those “demons,” it turned out, were high-powered members of his church, whose expectations of him were impossibly high. More on this in a moment. But first…
Not many months after this man’s tragic suicide, another pastor, also from Saint Louis, asphyxiated himself to death because a similar, secret depression.
As an aspiring pastor myself, the news of these two pastor suicides rocked my world. How could these men—both gifted pastors who believed in Jesus, preached grace, and comforted others with gospel hope—end up losing hope for themselves?
As the stories of these pastors became more public, it became clear that both of them shared an all-too common reality for pastors. Both had allowed themselves Continue reading Thoughts on the rise and fall of pastors
Doing the research for my upcoming book “The Not So Overwhelmed Leader,” I came across some great information about chronic stress that is really important for leaders to keep in mind. Stress researchers remind us that stress in and of itself is not bad — it’s a part of life, and it keeps us actively engaged. The problem is chronic stress — when we are overloaded and, instead of getting time for self-renewal, we continue our pace and get hit with more stress-inducing experiences.
The key for all of us is to learn to live with rhythm — to build into our lives times where we actively engage, and then other times where we back off for rest and renewal. In the Bible, the concept of Sabbath — taking a day off each week for rest — is presented as a gift, something that helps us live better. As Jesus reminds us, “Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27).
If you want to get a little geeky, and learn more about how stress — especially chronic stress — works, read on. This is an excerpt from the book “Brain Longevity” by Dharma Singh Khalsa, MD, and it talks about what chronic stress does to our bodies and brains. Enter Dr Khalsa:
Many people think stress is an outside force that causes them to feel tension. That’s not stress, though–it’s a “stressor.” Stress is the feeling that can result from a stressor. This may seem like a trivial distinction, but it’s vitally important. It means that if you don’t perceive a stressor to be stressful, then it’s not one. Some researchers define stress as any difficult situation that you can’t control.
If you can control a difficult situation, it will probably be good for your brain. It will coax your brain to make new synaptic connections between neurons, as you attempt to resolve the situation….
But if you perceive your situation as out of your control, you will be much less likely to engage these neurons in creative problem solving, and much more apt to secrete the hormones that will “cook” your brain.