By Ruth Haley Barton
“Because we do not rest we lose our way. Poisoned by this hypnotic belief that good things come only through unceasing determination and tireless effort, we can never truly rest. And for want of rest our lives are in danger.” —Wayne Muller
There are at least two kinds of tired in this world. One is what I call “good tired.” This is the tiredness we experience after a job well done, a task accomplished out of the best of who we are. This is a temporary condition, and when it comes, we know that after an appropriate period of rest and recuperation we will soon be back in the swing of things.
But there is another kind of tired that is more ominous; it is what I call “dangerous tired.” This condition is deeper and more serious than the temporary exhaustion that follows times of periodic intensity in our schedules and workloads. The difference between “good tired” and “dangerous tired” is like the difference between the atmospheric conditions that produce harmless spring rain clouds and those that result in the eerie green tint of the sky that portends the possibility of a tornado. When the sky is an angry green, something doesn’t feel right and you know you had better pay attention. One atmospheric condition is normal and predictable; the other is risky and volatile.
Dangerous tired is an atmospheric condition of the soul that is volatile and portends the risk of great destruction. It is a chronic inner fatigue accumulating over months (and sometimes years) that doesn’t always manifest itself in physical exhaustion. In fact, dangerous tiredness can appear to be quite the opposite because it can actually be masked by excessive activity and compulsive overworking. When we are dangerously tired we feel out of control, compelled to constant activity by inner impulses that we may not even be aware of. For some reason we can’t name, we’re not able to linger and relax over a cup of coffee. We can’t keep from checking voice-mail or e-mail “just one more time” before we leave the office or before we go to bed at night. Rather than reading anything for the sheer pleasure of it, our nightstand is piled high with books and professional journals that cram our heads full of more information that will keep us at “the top of our game.” The idea of taking a full day off once a week seems impossible both in theory and in practice. We rarely, if ever, take time for a real break or vacation, choosing instead to work through holidays and break times. Not surprisingly, we might find that even when it is time for well-deserved sleep or rest, we are unable to relax and receive this necessary gift.
While our way of life might seem heroic, there is a frenetic quality to our activity that is disturbing to those around us. When we do have discretionary time we indulge in escapist behaviors such as compulsive eating, drinking, spending, television watching—because we are too tired to choose activities that are truly life-giving. When we have drifted into the realm of being dangerously tired, we might also be numb to the full range of human emotion. It might seem like a relief to be unhampered by the negative emotions that bog other people down, but when we are dangerously tired the positive emotions become elusive as well. We don’t feel much of anything—the good or the bad.
The sources of our inner exhaustion are many and varied. They range from simple over-scheduling and poor time management to the darker possibilities of being driven by performance, having few or no boundaries on our work and availability to others, tolerating toxicity in current relationships, or carrying the heavy burden of unresolved grief and pain from the past. One of the most sobering things I have learned about myself is that I can be very, very busy and look very, very important, but can at the same time have lost my ability to hear the voice of the One who calls me the beloved in quiet, sure tones. When that happens I lose touch with that place in the center of my being where I know who am in God, I know what I am called to do and am responsive to his voice above all others. Then I am at the mercy of all manner of external and internal forces, tossed and turned by others’ expectations and my inner compulsions.
The discipline of solitude can be a place to rest our weary selves in God—body, mind and soul. Rather than the effortful approaches to quiet time that are often filled with more things to do (however spiritual they may seem), solitude can become a time for simple noticing—noticing what is true about us in a given moment and then being in God’s presence with the things we’ve noticed.
You may be noticing that you are teetering on the brink of dangerous tired; or you might realize that you are already over the edge. This can be a painful realization. But what would happen if, rather than judging and berating yourself, you lingered with your awareness, noticing the weariness that many of us in Christian ministry have come to accept as normal? What if you allowed yourself to wonder about your tiredness just a bit and opened it up in God’s presence: “Wow, I am really tired. I’m not sure I was aware of just how tired I am. What is that all about?”
Then, rather than trying to just push through it, what would happen if you chose to stay in God’s presence with your tiredness and talk to him about it, acknowledging it as a child with a parent who cares and can help? What if, rather than feeling alone and weighed down by the seeming impossibility of your situation, you invited God into it by saying, “God, this is what is true about me. What are we going to do about it?”
Ruth Haley Barton is a teacher, spiritual director, and retreat leader. She is author of Invitation to Solitude and Silence: Experiencing God’s Transforming Presence, from which this article is excerpted. Ruth is co-founder of The Transforming Center, which is sponsoring “Invitation to Solitude and Silence” retreats. These retreats are designed specifically for pastors and ministry leaders who are seeking to establish these disciplines in their own lives as well as preparing to guide others. Please visit www.thetransformingcenter.org for more information.