If You’re Feeling Guilty, You’re Probably Doing Something Right by Don Milton III and Rev. Jonathan Rogers
Part I: Don Milton III
I’m grateful to Rev Rogers for sharing his sermon time with me. I’ve been asked by many congregants when I would get a chance to talk about my sabbatical experience and when I read his description for this service it really hit home.
When people ask me about my sabbatical it’s easy to tell them about a trip to Thailand with my wife where we ate a lot of weird things and spent a day with elephants. A trip to Italy with my uncle and sister where we stayed with our Italian family and had gelato every day, sometimes twice a day. I can talk about writing a chapter for a book that should be out in May. That I had real time to practice the piano and guitar and to read books about music. These are all specific easy topics.
It’s harder and more complex to say that I spent months figuring out how to not work all the time. I actually had dinner with Rev Makar in January and asked how to get my brain to stop planning services every waking moment. He said he had the same problem on his sabbatical and that I should buy a video game and maybe a bottle of bourbon. It’s more complex to say that I spent my sabbatical considering how to operate differently at UUCA to avoid the extreme burnout that I was experiencing and, to go further, to alter the environment that I helped create that led to said burnout. The more complex answer is devoid of food and elephants making it probably less entertaining than a slideshow but for me, it was the centerpiece of my sabbatical journey.
As I returned to UUCA I wanted to return to a job that wasn’t all-encompassing. A job where I could be successful in only 40 hours a week and then have time to, you know, live. Before I left I said that you can’t pour from an empty cup and I have honestly returned with a fresh cup full of new ideas and new energy but cognizant that I can’t fall into the same habits, I need to set up new systems or the cup will drain too quickly.
One way to do this beyond sticking to regular hours is to schedule and take vacation time. Last week I sat down with a paper calendar. I wrote down major UUCA events, I wrote down personal events, then I stared at the calendar trying to plan time to take vacation. But as I’m staring and thinking of vacation I don’t feel excitement, I’m not dreaming of places to go and great experiences. I feel guilt. Any time I think about being away on a Sunday morning or a Wednesday for choir rehearsal I have so much guilt. I understand that this guilt is silly. But I’ve been doing this almost every Sunday for half of my adult life and it’s hard to let it go.
I don’t know why it’s so hard. Last week in a meeting with Rev Rogers and Rev Makar talking about collaboration I brought up the fact that all three of us were probably the kid in school who did the whole group project by themselves to make sure it was done just right. I bet that’s true for a lot of you as well. And I’m lucky, I’ve got Travis, there are very few people in the world I trust more than Travis Vaughn. I know that when I’m away on a Wednesday the choirs get together and have a productive rehearsal; they sing and learn and have a great time. I know that when I am away on a Sunday the worship services continue to be excellent in every way.
All this to say that I don’t have an answer to the guilty feeling but I want to name it. To call it out in the open because I bet a lot of people here feel the same brand of guilt. I know there are people in this room working too much, feeling like, “there’s a lot to get done and only I can do it so I’m going to do it.” These impossibly high expectations are all too common in all kinds of workplaces. This leads to burnout and the associated guilt when you step away to refresh.
I returned from sabbatical with some big ideas about how I would spend my 40 hours and only 40 hours on UUCA work. Very specific times to check and respond to e-mail, being sure to allot time in my regular schedule for learning and practicing music, and being a lot less reactionary in my work. I’ve been back for five weeks and I need to admit that I’m not doing a great job so far but I’m conscious of it and I’m working on it. Not a humble-brag, an admission of weakness. There will always be more to do than there is time to do it and I will learn to make peace with that instead of fighting a never ending, exhausting battle to clear the to do list.
In my pre-sabbatical sermon I decried the “I’m so busy” humble brag that has become the go to answer to “how’s it going?” I hope we can all replace the thinly veiled boast of business with naming something that’s not ok. I hope if you’re like me and feel guilty about planning vacations that we can replace that guilt with excitement and joy. We need to embrace the fact that never-ending growth in a world of finite resources is impossible. So we need to choose specific goals and make sure we’re working towards them. To add something new and important we might have to take something else that’s important and let it go.
I hope I’ve returned to UUCA a little wiser with a deeper understanding of my work and my goals. I’m eternally grateful to the congregation for the chance to step away for a while to sort some of this out. Burnout is not mine, it is an epidemic right now. I’m so lucky to have had the chance to step aside and see it. Burnout is an epidemic and instead of accepting it as the American norm we should all name it, talk about it inside the workplace and in our regular lives, support each other as we struggle with it. Naming it not to complain, naming it not to brag, naming it to bring it into the light of day, a powerful antiseptic to any problem. Let us stop feeling guilty when we don’t grind ourselves into the floor trying to tackle an unsustainable workload and let’s work to change the broken system. Let’s start celebrating our much needed, much deserved time of reflection, growth, fun, relaxation, and excitement. Thank you again for hiring me, journeying with me, and supporting me. In the spirit of joy and gratitude, here’s a 20 second video I took from the top of a 10 foot tall, 6,000 pound elephant.
Part II: Rev. Jonathan Rogers
That’s right: everything little thing, is gonna be all right. We love this song in my family. It feels about as realistic to our lives as Yellow Submarine, but we love it. We are not an “every little thing is gonna be all right” kind of family. We are more a “something’s not OK we need to fix it right now!” kind of family. There is a story we like to tell about when I was an infant, and I was having trouble sleeping through the night. Most babies will start to sleep through the night by about six months, but I was going on a year old and still my parents’ nerves were being frayed by my waking up and crying nightly. My mom went to multiple sleep experts, and finally sat down with one who said that part of the process would involve just letting me cry, and asked her “How long do you think you can lay in bed and listen to your baby cry?” My mother was a bit taken aback by this question. The whole idea of “lay in bed and listen to your baby cry” was confounding to her. You’re not supposed to do that! That makes you a BAD parent! I know this because decades later when she tells the story, I can see on her face that she has intellectually processed this information but still feels on a very fundamental level uncomfortable with leaving her infant in the crib to just…cry.
Eventually she was able to take this advice to heart and began waiting longer and longer amounts of time before getting up and comforting me in my crib, until soon I was able to sleep through the night. Shortly after my parents began leaving a copy of the New Yorker in my crib and I would just read that by my nightlight if I woke up, so that worked, too.
There’s a phrase for doing something to avoid guilt, even when it is not helpful for your overall goal; it’s called “over functioning.” Even though it was the right thing for me and for the needs of our family all those years ago, it was really hard for my parents to listen to me crying and not get up to hold me. They felt guilty. They responded by over functioning. It often turns out to be the case that when we are part of a system of relationships, whether that is a family, a congregation, even perhaps a country, that responding to events within that system in a way that makes us guiltily feel like we are not doing enough…is actually the right thing to do.
This is a delicate balance; we can see that trying not to over function, it’s complex, right? But I can speak to you from the perspective of one who consistently over functions, who has a hard time not doing what the guilt tells me to do. When I first learned about the damage that over functioning could do, I pledged to work on it and picked a couple specific areas that I was going to focus on not over functioning in. I paid very close attention, and I worked hard and diligently to NOT over function. I strategized, anticipated, planned, fretted, and engaged in some hard conversations in order to not over function. And when I checked in about this process with a colleague months into the experiment, they said: “It sounds like you are over functioning at under functioning!” So take all of my advice with a grain of salt.
We can see the negative effects of over functioning again and again though. One of my favorite TV characters of all time is Lisa Simpson, the plucky middle child from the Simpsons. She’s a model student and citizen, always doing what needs to be done and helping out, while her older brother acts out and her mother frets about her father’s semi-functional alcoholism. She’s so responsible, that in one episode her parents leave her in charge of her siblings, despite not being the oldest. But her brother Bart bristles at her having this authority and, typically, acts out. He makes a prank call to 911, and then he hits his head and gets a lump, and then he locks himself in his room and bangs his head on the wall “to make the lump bigger.”
I don’t think anything on TV growing up burned itself more clearly into my consciousness than the image of a distraught Lisa, trying to care for her brother despite his shenanigans. I empathized soooo deeply with the responsible family member, student, citizen that she was, being undermined in her efforts to do the right thing. But it is precisely that single-minded drive to do the right thing, to be the responsible one no matter what, that can cause us the most trouble. This over functioning can turn us into enablers, in some instances, or it can cause us to cut others off from the opportunity to grow and thrive in their own responsible roles.
And so, when I say that if you feel guilty you’re probably doing something right, what I mean is that not over functioning is hard. Many of us are socialized to over function, and resisting that makes us feel guilty. One of the patterns where this manifests often is for ACOAs, Adult Children of Alcoholics. Earlier this year I did a research project on the ministerial history of UUCA, and was told that one of our former senior ministers announced their struggle with alcoholism from the pulpit early on in their tenure here. So, I have been curious as to whether this is a pattern affecting behavior in our congregation. Adult Children of Alcoholics are typically very accustomed to over functioning, in order to hide the effects of their parents’ illness. I suspect that many of us are predisposed to over functioning, whether our parents or ministers suffered from alcoholism, and so I think there’s a confluence of factors amplifying that culture in our congregation.
The antidote to this is both simple and incredibly difficult: don’t over function. Let it go, let it go, that perfect girl is gone! Sometimes we know that it’s good to step back from leadership roles for our own sake and for the sake of letting other leaders flourish. But that can feel so abstract, and the need for a group email to get sent out so imminent! In those moments, know that no matter how guilty it makes you feel to not step up and over function, you are doing something healthy for UUCA. If it makes you feel guilty, you’re probably doing it right. Sometimes we are giving too much of ourselves to keep something afloat, but we have to face the prospect of a program we care about DISAPPEARING if we do not over function. There is literally an existential amount of angst and guilt associated with letting this thing not happen. But if you are giving too much of yourself to that commitment, you need to back off, and if doing so makes you feel guilty, you’re probably doing it right. Every little thing…is gonna be all right.
My fellow Unitarian Universalist leaders…activists, teachers, caregivers, organizers, speakers, scholars, parents, mentors, musicians, Builders of Beloved Community: I love you and I need you with me in this work for the long haul. I want 2016-17 to be a successful program year, but I am much more concerned with the status of our faith movement over the course of our lifetimes, and the lifetimes of those who will follow us. And so when I make the plea for folks to be good stewards of their time and energy, and to not over function, it is not because I want to be nice but rather because there is a LOT at stake. Please do not over function, please take care of yourselves and each other. This is too important for us to do otherwise.
Peace, salaam, shalom, and may it be so.