If you missed my last post, I’m writing about how to recover from a depleted soul.
I knew months before our forced march to renovation concluded that my soul was depleted—and with the end not yet in sight, I knew my impoverishment would only get worse. I began resisting, attempting to cut the losses in my soul, but I knew the inevitable outcome.
Still, fighting the inevitable, as opposed to acquiescing, helped my morale.
I indeed wound up where I knew I would, dangerously depleted, but at least I wasn’t ashamed of not trying. It is one thing to be beaten. It is totally another matter to have never shown up, or as TR put it, to never get in the arena.
Do this repeatedly and randomly, and the result is demoralization.
The second observation I have about my road to recovery is what happened to my work—and it isn’t only what happened to my actual work, but what happened to my work day and my work rhythm.
Before I write to you about this, let me revisit why I’m writing about this at all. At it’s most basic level, my experience is about disruption. Fundamentally, for all of us, even the most free-spirited among us, life is rhythmic. Since life is irregular by nature, I’m writing to you with my experience because I believe all of us experience disruption to varying degrees.
A little disruption is manageable. But what do you do if the disruption is pervasive and persistent?
We all march to a beat. Even if the pulse is purely our own, it is our tempo and this order is essential. Disrupt this cadence, and we strive to recover. Disrupt this rhythm repeatedly, and the result is disorienting and our recovery chaotic. Do this repeatedly and randomly, and the result is demoralization, disillusionment, and discouragement such that we lose the confidence of our wellbeing—like a fighter in the ring who is punch drunk or addled.
Often, this dynamic is called, depression, and that is an apt description. But depression is such a catchall that you need these words of analysis to identify what I’m writing about. You also need to know that depression can have circumstantial origin, not necessarily physiological or spiritual.
Back now to my experience.
Most of the time, I write. My daily work grind has me at my keyboard and screen. As you gather from my website, I also offer guidance to individuals and groups on life and leadership issues, but this is a secondary aspect of my work.
Writing (like whatever it is you do) is hard work. It is demanding, creative, precise, critical, taxing, and at the end of the day, I’m whupped. (Note: to be whupped is worse than to be whipped, both of which are much worse than simply being tired.) But here’s the deal: I love what I do. If I was the last person on the planet, I would still write. Not only this, but writing is what I’m called to do. When I’m at my keyboard, I’m confident I’m where God wants me to be.
It is nice that you read what I write, but that’s not why I write. I write because I’m a writer.
“You should have done something different. What were you thinking?”
So, when it became impossible for me to be at my keyboard due to the mania all around me, I struggled. At first, I did lots of workaround things, e.g. writing at a coffee shop, writing earlier, then, writing at the expense of working out, sleeping, etc.
I also did lots of mental and theological gymnastics to come up with suitable explanations for why it was okay that I was not writing. All was not well in my realm and I wasn’t savvy enough, strong enough, resilient enough, smart enough… something enough, to get my world under control.
After while, I ground to a halt. No words. No creativity. No writing. And when I looked, no words in my soul to write if I had been able to find the time and place to do so. Since I had already expended my workout to attempt to write, there was no workout routine left, no substantive reading routine left, no meaningful discourse left.
Looking back, I want to say, “You should have done something different. What were you thinking?”
But if there is no choice but to go on, what do you do?
You go on.
The choice I had was a calculated, risky gamble: Can I manage this renovation forced upon me, figure out how to get the money owed to us by the insurance company before I bankrupt our finances, and do so without ruining my soul, breaking my health, or compromising my character? And if I expend myself to the degree I anticipate, can I ultimately recover?
Desperate times call for desperate measures.
Whether the last five years qualify as desperate or not is debatable. What’s not debatable is that the last five-to-seven years mandated I swim as hard as possible to keep my head above water. Lots of things, including writing, working out, and general soul-health, were jettisoned. Job one was to secure our home. If there was anything left floating in the aftermath, I could return and retrieve it. Maybe.
Right or wrong. That’s what I did.
And as my decisions played out, I experienced a combination of grief and resentment. Grief, that I could no longer do what I once did and desired to do, and resentment toward myself for not being able to get my world under control.
There was also a question that began taking shape. It assembled itself along these lines: I associated my work as a writer with a commissioning from God. Writing is not only what I do, it is what God wants me to do. This meant—or at least, my soul interpreted this to mean—that my work matters to God.
But if it matters, why is it expendable? If my work is ruthlessly compromised by the obstructionist, duplicitous business model of an insurance company, then which matters more?
Never mind that this would make Him unfit to be God and at best only a mediocre god.
There were many hours and days that I just told and re-told my story to a claims agent followed by making copies of what I’d already made copies of. It was soul-withering. There were many days I just drove around collecting parts from places I never knew existed.
Those accumulated, inescapable days eventually got my attention.
Inadvertently—I knew better—I had slipped into the belief that my work writing mattered more than my work reconstructing our damaged house and defending us against an unscrupulous insurance company.
That won’t work. As soon as you categorize your work as spiritual or unspiritual, as mattering or not mattering, based upon the work itself, your philosophy of work comes unraveled.
As soon as you conclude that your pastor’s job is divine and your job driving a truck is profane, then you endorse the notional implication that God values your pastor more than you. Worse still, that God needs your pastor more than he needs you, i.e. that there is work that God needs done versus work that you do to earn a living (and give a tithe to the church).
Can you really contribute something to God? Does God really need your pastor to do what he does? Does God truly need a portion of your wage?
If so, God is much smaller and less powerful than portrayed in Scripture. Never mind that this would make Him unfit to be God and at best only a mediocre god.
Now that’s a deep hole to dig. But it’s the hole I landed in while battling the fog of my daily demands.
Here’s how I began digging out.
With my work stalled, my soul depleted, my knees swollen from crawling around with a nail gun nailing baseboards, and no words visible when I looked into my writer’s soul, I got scared.
Fear is not good, but in my case, fear was like waving a red flag in front of a bull. Its presence got my full attention--cleared away some of the fog, to keep the metaphor going.
Don’t forget the definition of fear: Fear is the feeling/belief that you can be somewhere where God is not.
Whew! The road to recovery included (for me) an honest, candid assessment of why my work matters to God. The fear was that I would assess and discover that what I do for work is neither here nor there.
It’s obvious now, now that the noise has abated and the fog has cleared somewhat. In the throes though, in the midst of the melee—there isn’t anything more confusing than an all-out fight—my vision was obscured. I even wrote about this in my book, “No Mercy,” but just because I comprehend it enough to write a book on it, doesn’t make the intensity of a battle less intense or confusing.
Why does my work—your work, any work—matter?
Your work matters when you are trusting the Spirit of God to do what you do in you and through you. It isn’t what you do—as if God needs you to do X—but how you do whatever it is that you do. Mattering is all about attitude, intent, and motive. Reliance upon the Spirit of God in you, what you do matters. Independence from the Spirit of God in you, what you do is kindling for the deeds-of-the-flesh fire in the sky.
Doctor, lawyer, Indian Chief. Chef, mama, student, magician. Sales, operations, management. Driving a truck, or a tug, or a carpool, or pushing a mower. Expounding the Word of God, fixing teeth, sweeping up, or delivering peanuts at the ballgame. Or… writing. Or… renovating. Even contending against an insurance provider. There is no such thing as spiritual work versus unspiritual work.
There is only work, and work is engaged one of two ways: either with divine or profane motive, either in the power of the Spirit or the resourcefulness of the flesh. There is no such thing as neutral work.
The guys changing the oil on my truck have the same opportunity to do work that matters as I do when I sit down to write. Work done in the power of the Spirit is spiritual. Work done any other way is not.
Trust Christ in you and through you while working at the bank, and your work matters. Fail to trust Christ in you and through while working at the bank, and your work is so much wood, hay, and stubble (1 Cor. 3:10-15, and note the operative word in the passage is, “how”).
A sizable portion of my depletion was the grief of losing my ability to do what I do each day. I might as well have lost my ability to see. Of course, the resentment I felt for being forced to do what I didn’t want to be doing only exacerbated my sense of loss.
Recovery began, similarly to my previous article to you, before the project concluded. That’s important to note.
It is tempting to believe that once everything that is distracting you is quelled, you can get back to whatever it is that’s normal and good and call that victory. That’s like saying you will hold your breath until you are rescued rather than starting to swim as soon as you fall into the water.
Just because I adopted a different attitude and cued up a fresh motivation for what it was I was doing each day, didn’t make everything okay. I did these things, but I had lots of days remaining in the thick of it before the unnatural noise of my world went silent. And as you know from reading a few days ago, one week after completing our renovation, it all started over again. So, I’m writing to you, a) out of experience, b) from practice, c) from ongoing turbulence, and d) in anticipation of conflict about nine months from now.
Will what I’ve learned, what I practiced, and am practicing, stand me in resilient stead this Winter?
I don’t know the answer to Winter yet. It’s only sort of, kind of Spring. But I know the answer for today and can meet today more confidently by learning from yesterday.
The road to recovery then is adopting a policy of taking one day at a time. It is also the labor of getting very clear about what makes my work matter.
I sat in my home office listening to the old girl groaning and popping and breaking.
I read the story of Viktor Frankl years ago. Dr. Frankl was a Jewish Neurologist and Psychiatrist who landed in a Nazi concentration camp during WW II. Naked, alone, his family murdered, and his life’s work destroyed, Dr. Frankl wondered about the meaning of his life.
As he took inventory—a forced inventory, now that I think about it—he realized the only thing meaningful was his freedom to choose. He wrote about it after the war and stated that in between action and reaction there was the free opportunity for choice. In his case, in between the torturous horrors being inflicted upon him by the Nazi’s, and his response to their actions, was his freedom to choose how he would react.
As our house began cracking apart again, there were several days of dark disappointment and raw grief of watching something we created that was beautiful degrade by the hour. Until I figured out what was occurring, I sat in my home office listening to the old girl groaning and popping and breaking. I truly wondered for a time if she was irreparably ruined.
But faster this time than the last, and with the clarity of having been down this path before, I seized upon my opportunity. In between the stimulus and my reaction, my freedom to choose the Spirit's power was clearer.
Practically, there is nothing to do but persist. Practically, all I can do is all I can do. Practically, my intent is to trust and rely upon the Spirit of God in and through me. For now, this is my work.
Whether I’m talking to engineers, or lying on my belly in the mud finding a ruptured water line, or navigating through legal documents, or legal threats, my work matters if I’m depending on my heavenly Father to live through me by His Spirit.
I remain called to write. I love doing that. It frustrates me when I get interrupted—or derailed. But it’s a different frustration than I was suffering some months ago.
It is one thing to be frustrated. It is quite another to be frustrated by the belief that what I do doesn’t matter.
There is yet another curve in the road to recovery. I also adopted a renewed commitment to self-care. More on that next.