The Generous No – Self-Care as a Lenten Discipline

This article is part of a MennoNerds Synchro-Blog reflecting on suffering during the Lent season of 2015.  To read more articles in this series, go to http://mennonerds.com/tag/mennonerds-lent-2015/.  To find out more about MennoNerds in general, go to http://mennonerds.com/about.

sayingnoThe statistics are shockingly high – 25 percent of North Americans suffer from depression, fifty percent of marriages end in divorce, and career satisfaction is at an all-time low. Affairs are on the rise, pastor’s kids lament that their father (or mother) spent more time nurturing the church than raising their own family, and even after switching careers five or six times, Canadians still regret not earning the high income they think they deserve.

As a product of this culture, I can readily attest to the strain workaholism can produce on one’s emotional and physical well-being, marriage, and life. I have taken entire courses dedicated to how to care for one’s self spiritually and emotionally while engaging in rigorous ministry, and know all about the slippery slope ignoring your body’s warning signs will send you down. And yet, I choose to ignore them. Time after time, I find myself in the same predicament: over-committed, over-worked, and just about ready to quit.

This year in particular has been a challenging and stressful one for me. While I feel incredibly blessed by the numerous opportunities I have to serve in various ministry placements, an overload of studies and multiple part time jobs can cause me to feel easily annoyed, distant from friends, and over-tired. That’s why, I realized that this year I had to make a change.

It all stemmed from several smaller conversations with friends. I realized that I was getting exasperated with multiple questions, would intentionally avoid social outings so that I didn’t have to be with people, and was living off of 4-5 hours of sleep almost daily.   All of this was very out of character for me. As an extreme extrovert I generally cannot get enough time in with friends, but suddenly enjoyable activities because just added weight to my schedule, taking up time I already didn’t have.

Soon, emotional side effects gave way to physical and even spiritual side-effects. I have rarely been overworked to the point of experiencing head-aches or twitching, but suddenly it was taking place. I began feeling cynical about theological assignments, was frustrated with the amount of church visiting we had to do, and during my weekly seminary check-ins my statement would usually begin with “I’m stressed part 1/part2/part3.”

Having come to the realization that my body was warning me to either slow down or burn out, I was forced to make a decision: what is more important – pleasing people and denying myself or living a healthy and active life doing the things that mean the most to me? I think the answer here is pretty clear: the second one would be difficult at the beginning, but overtime it would produce more fruit leading me into a more impactful ministry in the long-run.

That’s why, this Lent I decided to do something different. Instead of the usual: giving up cookies, cake, chocolates, or Chaucer, I decided to give up my busy schedule. I decided to give up saying yes to things that caused me to be bitter and depressed. Instead, I decided to say no in order to say yes to myself and to the people I truly care the most about.

This hasn’t been easy by a long shot. People still ask me to be their personal taxi, private editor, and empathetic counselor almost every day. Sometimes they guilt me into the task with words like “I thought we were friends,” “I’d do the same for you” or “It’s the Christian thing to do.” But I have gradually had to learn to resist it.

Jesus did tell us to love others, to serve the broken, and to administer justice, but He never once said to do it at the expense of our own lives and our own health. Instead, throughout the New Testament, I see the injunction to love others as freely flowing out of a deep and profound love and respect of ourselves, giving of the excess of our talents and gifts in order that we can keep giving, rather than giving grudgingly out of a depleted stash.

What does this look like, you may ask? It means giving myself permission to say “no” or “not today, maybe later” when someone asks me something the same day my essay is looming. It means allowing myself to say “you didn’t really give me that much notice, do you think we could try again next week?” when the gas prices have skyrocketed and they are asking an unnecessary favour. It means allowing myself to go to bed at a reasonable hour and to get the necessary rest and sleep I need so that I can wake up rejuvenated and alert enough to edit papers, watch children, and stack library books correctly.

In reality, my schedule has not gotten any freer. I still take 5 master’s level classes, work 20 hours a week, and try to make time for friends on the side, but internally something has shifted. Internally, my mind has slowed down and has time to truly process and enjoy what is happening and externally I am back to my usually bubbly self. My weekly time commitments haven’t changed – what’s changed is my ability to reject activities that cause stress. In the end of the day, I see how by saying no to activities that compromise my morals, one-sided friendships, and personal taxiing, I am able to say yes to my young adult’s church group, long-time friends who have gone by the wayside, and soothed nerves that haven’t been exposed to rush-hour traffic in a few days.

I’m far from perfect and I’m still learning how this whole self-care thing works in the long-run. There are still so many brilliant and lovely friends who I haven’t visited with in ages and who I miss dearly. There are still so many activities I wish I could partake in, but reasonably do not have the time to do so.

This year my Lenten practice of engaging in self-care has the potential of developing into a lifelong habit that will continue to sustain me for the long-haul in ministry. May I ask you a question? What’s holding you back? What in your life is propelling you to keep doing the very things that are sucking your energy and draining your zest rather than enlivening and enriching your interactions? May I suggest that this Lent, you identify those problem areas and then lay them at the Cross? May I suggest that you allow Christ to fill your heart and soul with new strength and vitality as you make time for yourself, your friends, and your family?

Psychologists suggest that it only takes about 40 days to make or break a habit. Let’s make this Lent our time to make a habit that will truly matter for the long-run. God bless!

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