“We are not built for pain,” the bishop said yesterday, “but we are built for suffering.”
Why talk about suffering? It’s not even Lent, yet. This is how those of us who are Catholic know we are Catholic: if we aren’t suffering, we are doing something wrong.
Okay, seriously, let’s talk about suffering – a certain specific type of suffering that has nothing to do with pain. The bishop’s comment referenced the readings for the fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time. The first was an excerpt of Job: “Has not man a hard service upon earth, and are not his days like the days of a hireling? Like a slave who longs for the shadow, and like a hireling who looks for his wages, so I am allotted months of emptiness and nights of misery are apportioned to me.” (Job 7:1-3) And then the second reading, in the first letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians: “Brothers and sisters: If I preach the gospel, this is no reason for me to boast, for an obligation has been imposed on me, and woe to me if I do not preach it! If I do so willingly, I have a recompense, but if unwillingly, then I have been entrusted with a stewardship.” (1 Cor. 9:16,17)
I hereby dub this “Burnout Week.” So apropos that these reading show up in February! Have you seen Brandy Vencel’s series on Homeschool Burnout yet? She offers some great ideas to help you cope with it, but here’s what burnout is: the crash you feel when the good that you do, whether homeschooling or anything else, feels unrewarding, draining, or just plain boring in the moment you are doing it. The light inside feels as if it is extinguished, hence the sense that you must just suffer through, because the stewardship with which we have been entrusted, our children, is our primary duty. What is suffering but the willingness to get through the drudgery of doing – not planning and dreaming, but doing – day after day, week after week – for no immediate recompense. And why?
“So that you might have joy,” said the bishop. “Not happiness, but joy.”
We’ll forgive him, English is the bishop’s second language. I think he meant, as Fr. Pinckaers points out in his reflection on Catholic morality, that joy is a very different experience than pleasure, even though the two may both bring about happiness. The happiness derived from pleasure is external to us and short lived, but joy is about the deep satisfaction derived from, among other things, the “savor of a long task finally accomplished…truth understood and goodness loved.” (p. 78) When we are burned out, it is easy to turn to pleasures by “temporarily” suspending our duties in order to relight the fire. What we are looking for, in truth, is joy.
“Energy follows attention. The more you focus on the good, the more good there will be to focus on.” This quote hung on the wall at our marriage retreat on Saturday. Given the importance of attention as a habit we develop, it does follow that we use much of our energy in the process.
What does it mean to “CM” my marriage? Relationships experience burnout, too. The retreat, far from being an escape from the marriage, gave us a chance to ensure we were still working together. So the most important part of a marriage is dialog, where one partner shares either experiences, feelings or thoughts and the other responds. In Marriage Encounter, “dialog” is all about feelings, which did my husband and I very little good. We are both thinkers, not so much feelers, and our thinky hearts were warmed to know that we didn’t have to talk about feelings all the time.
Anyway, back to CM – how to use a Charlotte Mason principle in another area of my life. Think of dialog as narration. The dialog partner responds to the sharing partner with mirroring (“you said…” “is there more?”), validation (“I can understand this…”) and empathy (“I imagine you might feel…”). The partner does NOT respond with questioning, because, and this is important, the person asking the questions controls the conversation. When our kids narrate what they have read to us, they find it very frustrating when we interrupt them with questions, when we redirect the narration away from the direction they want to take it. It is natural to want to be heard. When we allow a narration, or a self-disclosure, to flow, we allow the speaker to show us who they are and how they think. “This is as good as it gets,” said our retreat leader, “to be seen as we really are.”
Our recompense, perhaps, is discovery. And that is a sure-fire way to prevent burnout.