"Was she burned out?" asked the man, upon hearing I left ministry. "It's more complicated than that," answered Micah, who was on his way back to work after a visit to the post office. Micah hopped on his British-made black vintage town bike and pedaled toward the University of Wyoming. There wasn't time to explain to the acquaintance standing on the city side walk how it is his wife came to loathe the term burnout.
And I do loathe it.
In fact, I'd say there's a justifiable case for ridding the human race of the term all together. Or, at least, erasing it from the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems where it is found "under problems related to life-management difficulty (Z73)." The description says it all: unable to manage to life.
"It's clear you were burned out," says one person after another. The implication is always the same: my difficulty managing stress was the real problem. I know this easy answer gives them comfort. It once gave me comfort too. If I only just mended my ways, took more time off, got myself a counselor and a spiritual director and exercised regularly and got enough sleep and reduced my work load and meditated...and...and...and...And then one day I woke up and realized I had done all those things...and still all my attempts at managing my life were in vain. A new life was calling. Only I couldn't claim it because I was too busy beating myself up about my failure to resuscitate the old one.
But don't take my word for it. Look around you. Do you see the ways people contort themselves into a hundred different painful positions, convincing themselves all they have to do is try harder and all their problems will go away?
Micah and I spent several hours on a train in Switzerland talking to a nice young couple from Idaho. They offered us red currants purchased from a small mountain-top grocery store. We gave them hunks of cheese bought from a farmer while hiking on an alp. Micah gorged himself on a container of Swiss salad: slices of sausage, Emmenthaler cheese, gherkins, and red onion that makes for a potent concoction best consumed in small portions. Micah, sadly, did not heed this sage advice and wound up with a stomach ache.
While Micah repressed his need to unbutton his pants and recline, the wife confessed she had been unhappy in her job in computer science. So she found a different one. Same field, new company, with more demands. She and her husband used her move up as incentive to buy a bigger and better home. Which then led to the troubling discovery that "There just isn't enough time in the day to get it all done." Well, no, not with the bigger home and better job that actually is a drag on your soul because as it turns out, that computer science degree was never a good fit. Only no one will say this. Instead they will say, "It's clear you're burned out." The lovely young woman, in turn, will find herself a hobby, possibly enroll in a yoga class, and try her damnedest to prove to her boss she's worth that raise. Because it's her fault she's perpetually tired and inexplicably restless.
So, yes, I loathe the term burnout. I loathe it for this woman's sake and for every person who's ever given her soul away trying to make the impossible work. There is and will only ever be one answer: to walk away.