Born to Burn?

I’ve been watching a lot of lectures about education lately, and there’s a common theme to answer a common question: How can I keep myself from burning out?

The answer is always a variation of “work harder” or “work smarter.”

This, I’m afraid, is simply insufficient. There is no amount of working harder or working smarter that can make the work we’re doing any less exhausting–and this applies to all areas, whether you’re a student, a teacher, healthcare provider, or something else.

So what can we do?

I think I’ve learned a lot from Brene Brown and Kelly McGonigal about changing mindsets and expectations. Is working better our end goal, or is a more wholesome approach to life what we’re after, what we truly need?

Everyone chants, “Manage stress! Stress is bad! Stress will kill you! And if you’re not managing your stress, you suck at life and you deserve your stress to kill you.”

I’m paraphrasing, of course, but that’s the message they’re sending.

But “managing stress” assumes that stress is a problematic and removable part of life. It isn’t. In fact, the original definition of stress was so broad that it referred to any sort of expected impact of living–so life itself was made the stress we’re trying to escape.

That makes no sense, and it’s become a toxic environment, in our culture and others.

I’m in pursuit of evolving my stress mindset to be more holistic and adopting new, more realistic perspectives on what constitutes wholehearted living, but this is a long process, and as my long-time readers will know, I’ve barely begun to scratch the surface.

I am, however, only one person–and I’ve come to this realization only at the point of burn-out, only when my life was in such disarray I needed individual counseling and multiple medications to bring it under control. This reactive approach to self-care is harmful, and it reduces not only our personal wellbeing, but the impact we can have on others. Imagine if nobody received cancer treatment until it was terminal. How absurd is that? More people would die from cancer than survive! And the loss of communal health and wealth and wellbeing, due to this singular outcome, would be devastating.

But that’s exactly the approach we’re taking to mental health! We expect people to die before we help them to live.

I feel like we’ve reduced people to necessary elements in the pursuit of product. We don’t care about people; we care about what they produce. So if it’s easier, and cheaper, as a producer, to replace people than maintain them, that’s what we do.

And that’s why so many professions thrive by burning out and replacing their people.

Educators fall into the category, as do many others, but perhaps educators most of all.

The problem, however, is that people are not the products they produce, and people–even those who produce nothing–have inherent value and worth.

We must embrace ourselves, our peers, our employees as people. Whole people. People deserving of compassion, fair compensation, and collaborative support.

We cannot “work harder” or “work smarter” if all we care about is the product, not the process, not the person. Is it better to serve one class of students perfectly and then leave the profession, or serve many classrooms over many years, knowing perfection is impossible and that anyone claiming otherwise has lost sight of reality?

The kids we serve deserve the best, and so do we. I’m not saying we should deliver any less–I’m saying we need to remember an unspoken truth: In order to show up, we must first be present. And if we allow ourselves to burn out, that presence is lost.

I don’t have the answers, and I’m scouring my surroundings desperately to find them before I’m thrown into a classroom and expected to be perfect, but unable to be because perfection is an undefined, unattainable ideal. Maybe there are no answers. Maybe there are. But either way, I know candles can’t burn on both ends forever.

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