Rev. Lee talks today about her decision to reduce her workload temporarily to help prevent burnout. In this honest message, she asks all of us to consider the ways in which we might approach work and responsibilities differently – in a way that helps us continue to both work and care for ourselves.
A Different Way
Who knows where the time goes. It’s April already. And I can’t believe Easter is next week. There’s so many. Wonderful things about
being back together in the room while we were sitting during our meditation. Two teen boys who volunteer in our Youth Spirit program
were excitedly whispering to each other. And I realize that I don’t think they’ve seen each other in person in two years. Who knows
where the time goes. If you were here or if you watched online last Sunday. Then you know that Reverend Ken gave a remarkable
message last week. It was the kind of message that reminded me just how much I’m going to miss his regular presence preaching
here with us after he retires later this summer. Reverend Ken taught me a lot about preaching. And one of the things that he taught
me is that when we up here can be honest about who we are and what we’ve been through, we can help each other find hope for a
path forward. Last Sunday, Reverend Ken shared a story of grief out loud. And today, in keeping with the theme for our message
series this spring. Our theme. That’s about all of the different changes we’re making. Some of us resigning from things, that great
resignation that we’ve talked about, but some of us choosing new things, integrating new parts of our lives and our selves, picking up
the threads and weaving our lives and our communities and our connections back together.
And so today I want to share. A personal story of integration out loud. Before I get into my story, though, I want to show you how I was
inspired to talk a little bit about this today by this little cartoon that I saw a few months ago. It’s a dialog between two trees from the
Instagram user wholesome comics, and it is very wholesome. And as the little scene opens, you see the tree on the left. They’re
asking the tree on the right, how are you feeling? And the tree on the right says, Still dead inside. And then the tree on the right says,
But something unexpected happened. And you see that tree turn to the side. It has a big gaping hole in it. We don’t know why there’s
a hole there. We don’t know where it came from. But if you can see, there are three little birds sitting inside of that hole and singing.
And the tree says, I thought I had a permanent hole in me that I could never heal. But then some birds moved in. And in this last
panel. The tree with a little bird nuzzled up against its branches and a little rose on its tree cheeks there. Says to its friend, I found a
different way to be happy. I wonder how many of us feel like we have had a permanent hole? Torn in us. For whatever reason,
whether it’s from. These last two years.
Something more recent, something much older. I know that life tears holes of some kind in all of us. The shapes of the holes are
different. The size might be different. The circumstances are different. But this idea of an injury in us from which we fear we may
never recover. Is very real. I know that for some of us in this room, a specific memory may come to mind, because I know that some
of us can pinpoint the day and the hour that life tried to tear us apart. Maybe you have more than one. Or maybe what comes to mind
for you is a period of years. A period of time spent living under the hardest circumstances you’ve ever experienced. Could be, maybe,
I don’t know, the years between 2020 and 2022. Just throwing that out there. But there are others. There are too many possibilities.
There are too many other times that we can find our lives. Torn. The years that surround the end of the marriage for some. The first
months after the death. The accident. The assault. The illness. The surgery and the rehab. The war. There are too many possibilities.
And whatever it is for you. Life does tear holes eventually in all of us. It was the years that surrounded the end of the marriage that
first tore a hole in me. They started early because it was my parents marriage. They coincided. With the years surrounding the
My mother’s. And when you grow up. An only child. Just me in that kind of a hole tearing environment. You need a way to cope. We
all need ways to cope with these things that tear holes in our lives. Now you could say I got lucky because for whatever reason. In my
little mind and my little heart, I decided I would cope with the difficult things in life by being really good. Any other chronic
overachievers here. I certainly could have chosen a more dangerous compulsion. Right. Though I realize in retrospect there’s a
different kind of danger when you cope through high performance and hard work. Nobody stages an intervention. Nobody stops you
when you get the acceptance letter to Harvard and says it’s gone too far. Right. It’s too easy to keep doing. It’s too easy in our society
to keep pushing yourself. You will be rewarded for working hard. If you keep on trying to do the best job possible as a way of papering
over those holes that life tears in us all. It’s possible that no one will try to stop you. And it was easy for me to keep on doing it until
eventually it wasn’t. I’m also lucky because I started to see the cracks for me pretty early in adulthood, thanks to this, thanks to
ministry. In the ministerial formation process, the training that Beth, our ministerial intern, is doing right now, the training that myself
and Reverend Ken and all Unitarian Universalist ministers go through.
You are required to do a lot of self-reflective work and that’s a good thing. But it still took me. A few years. Between the ha. Of
noticing that my go to coping mechanism was to work harder and to achieve more. It took me a few years between the ha of noticing
and the oh. Of recognizing that this compulsion to push myself was really bad for me. When I was struggling, I tended to work extra
hard to try to do extra good because then I would get all the kudos coming back to me to make me feel better. And it worked. And it
became a habit. And it left no space. Eventually it left no space in my life. I didn’t want to let myself take time to rest. Or to just enjoy
myself. And in those moments when I finally would rest and stop, it would come like a crash because I was still a human being who
needed that space and time. And I was starving for a break. And if I took one, I would feel simultaneously guilty. And also like I never
wanted the break to end. And that’s not a sustainable. Pattern. Coping mechanisms. They can help us in the moment. But they’re not
meant to become a lifestyle. And no matter how shiny the wallpaper is, when we try to paper over these holes that life tears in us. It
About five years ago, I finally decided to do something about this, and I went to therapy to work through some of that really old stuff
that I had been carrying around for a long time. I had to learn how to integrate my grief from my childhood. Into a more balanced
understanding. Of how I could be in the world. And I did. I learned and figured out different ways to do things, new sources of good
feelings and comfort for myself, new habits that aligned with what mattered most to me. And yes, it was a form of self-focus for a
time, but it actually made me feel more powerful in the end and more effective in doing all those things that I care most about in the
world. And the process was messy. It didn’t change anything about my past. But wow, did it make life better and more beautiful? I
share all of this. Both. For those of you who raised your hands earlier, if it helps you, if it helps anyone to see themselves in my story
and feel less alone in it. But also as one way. One story. To help us all talk about and understand what happened. Over these last
two years. When the pandemic hit. All of us here in this community. But especially. Our board and our staff. Our musicians. And me
jumped in with two feet. There was one very intense weekend in early March 2020 where we figured out in about 72 hours how to do
While all of us were figuring out how to do new things, how to raise our kids and do school with them at home. How to pivot our own
businesses. How to find basic resources if we had lost hours or wages. We jumped in with two feet. And we figured it out. How we
could make sure this community would survive. This experience, and it was worth every minute. And we did good. But I have to tell
you that somewhere along the line. I got stuck. I got stuck in those first 72 hours. I forgot to turn off that switch. I was trying to cope in
the midst of a crisis like we had never quite lived through before. And my blessed self protective body and mind took me right back to
my old ways of coping. If any of you have read a headline cracked open a newspaper at all since March of 2020, you know that this
experience was common for people with all kinds of different coping strategies. Many people in recovery experienced relapse over
these last two years. People with mental health issues that were previously well managed began to struggle again. Violence has
escalated. Anger is everywhere. Our resources for coping. Get overtaxed in a crisis and our internal systems search for whatever
might work. Particularly in a crisis that stretches out over years with no clear end date in sight.
And so if you thought that this message was a little pat on the back, a story of neat integration with a beginning, middle and end that
ties a nice bow on the pathway to personal development. It is not. Because sometimes integration is followed by disintegration.
Sometimes things fall apart again. And when that happens, it can feel. Like we’re in an even more hopeless place. Because we
thought we had fixed things. We thought we were better. We got so far and now all of that growth and progress. That was so
precious. You can feel lost. There is little in life more discouraging than a setback when you thought things were getting better. And
we see that everywhere right now. We see it in our politics. We see it in the pushback on LGBTQ rights when we thought things were
getting better. We see it in the pushback on things like diversity and inclusion and social emotional learning in our schools. When we
know that there is a mental health crisis. Right. How much it hurts. To see things get pushed back when we thought they were getting
better. We see it across the globe right now. We witness horrid atrocities, civilians slaughtered in Ukraine. That remind us of earlier
scenes of war in Europe. And we wonder what happened to the peace that my grandparents fought for. Many of your parents, many
of you fought for. We might even see it in our own hearts.
Our faith in each other. Our belief in the promise of democracy, like Chris talked about, we can’t take for granted anymore. It’s hard
when we thought things were getting better and they fall apart again. And those holes gape open. Before us. So there were parts of
me that disintegrated again. Over these past two years. Now, one blessing, I suppose, of the last two years is that it was pretty clear
to me why that was happening. I made you a helpful graph. You can see on the left here the crises, plural, of these last two years, a
large blue circle and my coping mechanisms are smaller, that little tiny green circle. The new, healthier coping mechanisms I
developed were dwarfed. The larger circle of my older. The deep roots of those older, unhealthy, unhealthy coping mechanisms. The
crisis was even bigger than those. So even after I fell back. On those old strategies of pushing myself. And working way too hard and
way too much. My ability to cope was eventually overwhelmed. And for the first time in my life. After pastoring to so many of you.
After learning and reading and hearing so much about what it’s like to experience mental health symptoms. I started having some of
my own. I was crying a lot for no reason. I felt first thing when I woke up in the morning and all day long, this persistent sense of
panic. And sadness. I had extremely low energy and I felt exhausted nearly all of the time.
I even had one temporary episode of Loss of Function with something small but just consequential enough to scare me when it began
to rain one night while I was driving home and I swear for about 90 seconds I could not remember how to turn the windshield wipers
on. If you were here at WellSprings in the fall. You know that when I noticed these symptoms were persistent. I realized I had to ask
for some help. And I did. And you all said yes. I asked for something that I wish all of us could ask for in our workplaces. If you want
help advocating for it, I will coach you. I will do my best because it’s so important. We have all been through. Quite a couple of years,
let alone whatever was happening in your own personal and private lives. Here at WellSprings. I asked for six months with an
adjusted schedule, a four day workweek. So that I could take the time and the space I needed to work with a therapist again and to
begin to heal from the effects of all of that. This month, April. Is the final month of those six months. And I’m not experiencing any of
those symptoms anymore. Taking time, healing, doing something about it. It works. And the healing. The healing is not over. But I
have learned more new things. As I pick up and weave together the pieces this time around.
I’ve learned more new ways to connect with what really matters to me most. More new habits to tend more of those little green shoots
so that that circle gets bigger. I am making something whole again. Reintegrating those pieces. Which feels like the biggest blessing
I could have asked for, because I realized that the thing I was most afraid of. The thing that many of us fear as we struggle to cope
with a crisis. Is that we’ll never feel the way we used to. I was afraid that this was going to sweep away all of my old joy for this work,
that this would steal my ministry. That was so precious to me. Many ministers are joining the great resignation for all kinds of reasons.
I was afraid. That all of the goodness and the spirit that I bring to this work was lost forever. But it was not lost. It was just
overwhelmed. If you are afraid. That’s something precious to you was lost. During this time. If you’re afraid that your joy is lost or your
hope for this world is lost. Or your faith in other people is lost. I can tell you from personal experience, it’s possible. That it’s not gone.
It’s just overwhelmed. Many things go underwater for a time. They can be obscured from us for a season. As the old scripture says,
you may see through a glass darkly now.
But that doesn’t mean that one day you won’t see clearly again. For me, the trauma of these last two years showed up as burnout.
Because that has been the way that I cope. But like I said before, these holes, life, tears in us come in all different shapes. And I don’t
know necessarily what holes. Life has torn in you. I don’t know if they’re new. Or if they’re very, very old. But I know how it feels. To
feel the threat of an injury that we fear we may never recover from. And I know that there are lots of people here in this community.
Who have learned. To live with these open, gaping, God shaped holes. In ourselves. As long as human beings have been here to tell
the story. We know that there is no crisis, no bump in the road, no setback or relapse, no chilly, unseasonable April day that will stop
the spring from coming. We don’t even need to read that one in a holy book. We see it in the ground. And the sky. So friends, if you
are listening today, whether here or at home, and perhaps you realize that you have just been coping recently. Please know that I
understand. We understand. And we all invite each other this morning to remember that coping is much too narrow away for living all
the time. We believe here in this community that we are all worthy of a life so much bigger and so much more full.
There’s a reason this idea of a God shaped hole is so persistent. Reverend Ken was talking about it last week in his message. It’s
referenced in our WellSprings core beliefs. It’s found in the earliest Christian writings of theologians like Augustine Pascal. C.s. Lewis.
It’s right there in the concept in Buddhism of the hungry ghost grasping attachment. Endlessly craving something to fill that space, but
never being satisfied. Even Mick Jagger knows about the God shaped hole, right? He can’t get no satisfaction. The God shaped hole
keeps showing up. Because that hole represents our attempts to cope with the ongoing reality of suffering. The thing that we wish we
could eliminate in this world, but is apparently above our pay grade. And the great work of spirituality. Of tending to your soul. Is not to
fill up or paper over those holes. But to leave them open. Because when they are open. Something greater than ourselves.
Something from outside of ourselves. A kind of grace. You can flow through them. A closed up hole has no room for birds to build
their nest. No room. For babies. No room for new life. The broken places in our souls don’t heal by being patched over. The heel.
Season after season by rotting down until the soil is fertile. By the cycle of tears that comes to water. And by the breeze. And the sun
and all the animals, human and otherwise, that come to help us till the land to break things up.
To get ready. Maybe it has been a hard season for you. A new one is on the way. And perhaps in this next season of our lives, we
can find a different way to be happy. Amen. And may you all live in blessing. I invite the band to head back up here and the rest of
you to take a minute to join me in the spirit of prayer. God of the mysteries. Creator. Mysterious yourself. Of all of these things that
surround us, all of these people, all of this earth. Blessed and painful as it is at the same time. How can it be so many things? Holy
presence. May you offer us some peace. When we are tired. And we are tired of the struggles around us. May we remember that
together we can give each other. That same presence. Gentle as the seasons. Study. As the seasons as they change. Here through
all of it. Through the good and the bad times. May we feel the truth that we are not doing this by ourselves. And that perhaps opening
up and sharing a little bit of how we’re doing. With our fellow trees, with our friends. Can help us all find our pathway forward. For the
prayers I’ve spoken out loud and for the prayers that all of us are carrying on our hearts. This morning, we say amen.
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