The Holiness of Napping

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Burnout_quote

“As the people stood in the distance, Moses entered into the
deep darkness where God was.” (Exodus 20:21, NLT)

When I was 27 years old, I walked into the darkest time of my life. I didn’t know at the time that in this darkness I would also meet God.

I was a young missionary, exhausted from living. My stomach constantly ached. Taking a shower left me feeling so depleted I needed a nap to recover from it. Deciding what to make for supper was harder than a calculus exam. I could barely concentrate on work. Suppressing my tears became futile and I often cried for no reason.

I was a missionary who didn’t want to see people. Frankly, I was too tired to really care about them. I felt adrift and alone. I couldn’t see anything beyond myself.

God felt distant and terribly silent.

Initially, I thought these were symptoms of depression. But as I consulted with colleagues and medical professionals, I realized that I had burnt out.

From a very young age, I felt an acute sense of responsibility to do all things with excellence. My parents were entrepreneurs. They taught me the value of hard work and productivity. Words like “excellent” and “conscientious,” scrawled on my report card, propelled my deeper need to justify my existence in the world. I strived to do my best in everything.

My parents also taught me about effective time management. In grade school, my mother made me extensive schedules broken down into half-hour increments. She’d list everything I had to do, from the moment I got home until bedtime.

I continued this practice in university. There were no smartphones or online calendars yet, so my day-planner was my second Bible. I would use extra fine point pens to cram as much writing as I could into each tiny square, taking pride in seeing all my appointments and deadlines colour-coded.

I wanted my life to count. I’d learned in church that Jesus had paid for it with His blood. And I felt like I owed Him back. Big time. So I taught myself to say, “Yes.”

Yes, I’ll join the youth group committee…
Yes, I can lead the worship team this month…
Yes, the meeting can be at my place…
Yes, I’ll take part in starting the campus fellowship…

I wanted to prove my love for Jesus. So I also said “Yes” to going to China for two years to be a missionary. This meant cramming the last three courses of my undergraduate degree into six weeks. No breaks. No rest days. No holidays. And barely any bathroom breaks!

I figured I would rest when I got to Heaven…

The life of an overseas missionary proved demanding. There was a new culture to learn, a new way of doing ministry to become familiar with, a new language to acquire, and a new team to bond with. By the second year, tension was growing between my always-on-the-go missionary lifestyle and my innate need for solitude, contemplation and artistic expression. My soul was slowly suffocating–but I didn’t feel like I had permission to step back.

I pushed on for another two years. “One more year over there,” I’d agreed. But four months into it, I crashed. I found myself unable to function at the most basic level.

Broken, humbled and confused, I moved back to Canada. My parents graciously took me in. The initial months consisted mainly of sleeping, eating, and sleeping some more. I went to a new church where no one knew me. I saw nobody except for my best friend. I found space to heal.

It was a quiet, lonely time. As I slowly regained strength, I started to see a counselor to help make sense of why I had burned out. Taking his advice to heart, I requested an extended medical leave from work. My counselor told me it would probably take two years to get back to full capacity. It turned out to be three years.

It was an excruciatingly slow recovery process. I was tempted to “take my temperature” every day. I remember wondering, six days into my leave, why I didn’t feel better yet. But I had to learn to trust God again: to trust He was working even when I didn’t see any changes. I had to let my body catch up on the rest it had been deprived of. No one could see or measure the depth of my pain and extent of my tiredness. I had to let my soul revive itself.

The hardest part was learning how to do nothing. I wondered whether people secretly thought I was being lazy. In the heart of the darkness, I wrestled with soul-defining questions:

Who is God and what does He want from me?
What do I need to accomplish to be worthy of His love?
If I don’t complete another task in my life will I still be worth loving?

It was hard to comprehend how the answer to this last question could be “Yes.” Yet this was the truth God was daring me to embrace. Jesus had already done it all: I had nothing to prove. All I needed to do was let God love me for who I was.

I was redefined in the darkness. The “me” who emerged from the aftermath of burning out was entirely different from the “me” who had headed overseas so zealously. As I let the truth of God’s grace and total acceptance infuse my soul, I became freer, less fearful, and more rested. I began to say “No” to requests. I had to embrace my limits and respect my introverted needs. It wasn’t easy but I learned how to decline invitations. I was content staying at home by myself when I needed to rest.

I began to fill my days with life-giving things. I discovered that naps could be holy and that jigsaw puzzles weren’t just for children! I found joy in buying flowers for myself. I took up writing and painting again. I finally experienced the “unforced rhythms of grace” (Matthew 11:29, MSG) that Jesus had invited me to all along.

I had spent fourteen years ignoring my own needs in the name of “self-sacrifice.” But at the end of it all, I no longer had a “self” to sacrifice. When it was all stripped away, I was left facing the embarrassing truth that I had been driven by fear. I had lived my life based on performance, people-pleasing and perfectionism. I’d tied my worth to how productive I could be. I had spent so much time trying to tell others about the God’s grace and unconditional love. But I hadn’t actually believed in it myself. And I certainly hadn’t lived it. I had tried to earn God’s acceptance–but had only burned myself out in the process.

“Burnout is a state of emptiness… but it does not result from giving all I have: it merely reveals the nothingness from which I was trying to give in the first place.” -Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak

Burnout returned me to the foot of the cross. I had travelled the world to tell others about Jesus but He brought me home to help me experience this truth: Christ’s extravagant love was for me, too.

(Image: flickr / Design: Tina Francis)

Photo credit:  Caitlinator

 

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Olive Chan
Olive is a friendly introvert and recovering perfectionist. In an ideal day, she would paint, eat chocolate croissants and take lots of naps. But she’s primarily occupied these days with her two lovely little ladies, Alena and Kayla and making sure her husband, Tim, does not have to eat McDonald’s too often. She has co-written two books with Tim and takes breaks from the little people by building websites with their small company, Coracle Marketing. She aspires to be a conduit of grace, rest and beauty in this hurried and chaotic world.
Olive Chan

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Olive Chan
  • JackandJennifer Brown

    I am so encouraged by this!

  • Shirley Rayburn

    I want to express my delight in this article, but words like “excellent” keep popping into my brain. So instead I will say that your words echoes my experience and learning. I celebrate the freedom we’ve found at the foot of the cross, soaking in the extravagant love of Christ.

    • olivechan

      Shirley, Christ’s love truly is extravagant, isn’t it? We have so much to celebrate.

  • HBurns

    Healing words today Olive… absolutely beautiful. Thank you xoxo

    • olivechan

      You’re welcome. I’m humbled that God would work through my story.

  • Bev Murrill

    This is such a powerful piece; one of the best pieces I have ever seen on this subject. Thanks for your transparency and your courage to let the Potter reshape the vessel. I love this article.

    • olivechan

      Thank you for your kind response, Bev! Courage is a good word. And the Potter is gentle in His reshaping.

  • Monica

    Thank you for putting into words what I have lived and am living now.

    Grace be with you.

    Monica

  • This one has genuinely scared me. Perhaps it is time to let God really hit home how much I need to learn to stop now, whilst I have the time and space to learn. Oh wow. If the past year has been about daring to live – stepping out of every comfort zone I have known to me – this next year might just be about daring to rest.

    Daring to embrace the introvert I have worked hard to bury for so long. I don’t want it to come out, I never liked myself when I let that part of me, have space to live, but perhaps it is there that I will find my energy and power and input.

    But then it comes back to my name. It always comes back to Grace. That’s how I started, perhaps that’s how I should live. Giving myself the grace to not do my long checklist to reach where I need to be. It is time to step out of that and into grace.

    Into resting, finding the power to say no.

    • Dear Grace, I really really really hope you find the courage, but also permission to embrace your introvert. That’s the journey I’ve been on. I hope you learn to LOVE her … You are needed. Your unique view of the world and your relationship in the stillness is needed.

      This summer I laid off a lot of my own expectations of myself and started embracing my contemplative side. Not even embracing it, but giving it the space I need to thrive. It dawned on me that I am called to this Intimacy with God … this quietness and rest. This receiving … I’ve burned out too before. Not to quite the extent that Olive is talking about here, but what a beautiful lesson for us to learn.

      I look forward to hearing more and journeying alongside …

      much Love,
      xoxo

      • Idelette, your words speak such truth.

        I have read them over and over, and tried to decide what to reply all day. It’s all so true – I know it completely. And God keeps telling me these things over and over, but I am still running.

        I don’t want to let myself start contemplating, because from my experience I just completely doubt God, which leaves me in a place of complete darkness. It is never fun, and I really struggle with it.

        Praying that I find a freedom, a release, and healing in giving myself the time to find intimacy with God.

        Thank you for being alongside, you might be thousands of miles away, but God totally brings you to my side.

        It comes back to this word ‘courage’, it keeps doing that.

        Thank you for speaking truth into these dry bones,

        billions of blessings xxxx

    • olivechan

      “This next year might just be about daring to rest” – dare is a most appropriate word; it really does take courage to stop striving. I echo Idelette in praying that you would find the courage and inner permission to embrace this important part of you, Grace.

      And that long checklist of where you need to be? It’s actually where you *think* you need to be. Where God thinks you need to be may be entirely different.

      Love and peace to you in this journey, friend.

      • Oh Olive, I just so don’t want to stop striving. Every part of me knows I need to, but I don’t want to.

        I have a whole lot of baggage I need to lay aside – I guess it comes back to it not being in my power, but only God’s.

        I think God wants me to entrust all that to Him, and just take the first step here and now.

        To you too, beautiful one.

        Thank you for being so honest and sharing so completely. Your honesty might just help save me.

        Grace

  • Big exhale indeed! This is awesome Olive. Your vulnerability and transparency are so encouraging. And this is excellent…because you are obviously in a place where God can work His excellence in and through you. Thank you for being His vessel.

    • olivechan

      Thanks for your encouragement, Susan. God’s kingdom is pretty upside-down – that excellence can come from weakness.

  • pastordt

    Oh, my, yes! Been there, done that. And you discovered life as it was meant to be lived at then end of long, dark tunnel. Thanks so much for this articulate and heartfelt writing.

  • abby

    This is fantastic! I really needed that reminder. thank you
    http://www.predatory-lies.com

  • Heather

    Thank you. This was so timely for me. I am exhorted, encouraged & grateful.

  • Elle

    Thank you so much for this. I’m six weeks back from a rich, but completely exhausting season working abroad (working 18/7, world governments on the line) + solo travel after – and I’m struggling with how tired, lost and withdrawn I feel.

    I’ve never taken naps in my life, but right now I frequently need them. I struggle with seeing friends – I can go whole weekends just laying on my sofa catching up on Netflix or doing puzzles alone. Nowhere feels quite like home – not my old familiar church, my apartment, my old stomping grounds. And I know I’ve come back different, but I’m still trying to understand what that means. But the biggest challenge is the overwhelming sense of “shoulds” v. the reality of where I am – spiritually, physically… everything.

    A lot of the “shoulds” come from me. I risked everything in faith and God rewarded greatly. It was exhilarating and hard and wonderful all at the same time. Shouldn’t I be racing forward to the next great adventure in faith? And yet God keeps giving me circumstances – financial and otherwise – to continue rest. To just “be” here for awhile.

    I’m learning that He just wants my willingness to go and do anything, but that the answer to that may sometimes be “stay and rest, let me care for you” not “go and do for me.” As a fellow perfectionist overachiever, that is almost tougher than “go”! I know how to earn, but I’m still learning how to just receive.

    But the most surprising thing is how much of the “shoulds” is subtly coming from other believers. “When are you going back abroad?” “Why would you consider a project back here?” “You have so much faith, I’m sure you’ll go do something crazy again.” It makes me wonder how many times I’ve pushed expectation on people instead of just nudging them to hear His voice and obey – even if His message is “rest.”

    • Becca Bluett-Duncan

      I know that feeling of coming back to what used to be a familiar place, and feeling like you’re somewhere new all over again. I just love that God finds creative ways to let (or make!) us rest. I hope that in this period you do learn to rest and find your peace in God- and that you will be able to take that into whatever season follows this one.

    • olivechan

      Oh Elle, “I know how to earn, but I’m still learning how to just receive.” How well-said! There is so much truth in what you’ve written.

      Two thoughts came to mind as I read your comments:
      1. Psalm 139:2, some translations have it as, “You chart the path ahead of me and tell me when to stop and rest.” God seems to have you at a such a place at this time.
      2. Your reflection on “shoulds” reminds me of a post I’d written: http://timandolive.com/words-i-deleted/. It’s hard to let go of the “shoulds” and “ought to’s” – but in the end, we are only accountable to God and not to anyone else.

      Blessings, grace and peace to you as you process, recover, rest and refill.

  • Becca Bluett-Duncan

    Thank you for this post. It is beautiful and real, and has
    just brought me to tears as I have read, and re-read, and read it once more. At
    the beginning of my final year of university I had what was probably a small
    breakdown- I reached a point like you describe, where “suppressing my tears
    became futile and I often cried for no reason”. I remember telling someone it
    felt like my capacity to do anything had just imploded, and where before I
    could spin many plates all at once, now I was struggling with just one. There
    were a couple of other events that affected me emotionally, and that whole year
    felt like a dark tunnel. I believed that I was depressed but wasn’t brave
    enough to talk about it. I’d had a number of friends who had struggled with
    depression and they had hurt me in their dealing with it; I didn’t want to be
    that person so I pushed on, continuing to give what little I could find within
    me and developing a skill of instantly squashing the tears if someone came into
    the room.

    When my degree course finished, I found life again. Suddenly
    there was that much less pressure, I went and volunteered in another country
    for 4 months where I had no external commitments and sunshine every day. I only
    cried once in that whole time.

    All these years I’ve put it down to an oscillating
    depression, which is too heavy to deal with when it’s here, and I want to
    forget all about when it’s not. I’ve accepted it and kept going.

    But reading your article, maybe it was burnout. Maybe it
    still is. I am a perfectionist, I do need to see that I’m making a difference,
    I do feel ‘obliged’ to do my bit for community. I know that I do too much but I
    don’t know how to stop.

    The healing process is SO slow. I did pull back after that
    final year, when I saw the contrast of who I’d become compared with the
    carefree me, but other things have crept into their place. I still come to
    breaking point two or three times a year. I feel like it’s the ‘thorn in my
    side’, the thing that keeps me from running too fast and forgetting to hold
    onto Jesus.

    By God’s grace, he has brought me to a halt more than once. Two
    years ago I broke my elbow in a cycling accident, and it forced me to have 6
    weeks off work when I hadn’t had a single week off in 8 months. Now I have a
    school-term job so I am never in work for more than 7-8 weeks in a row, but
    this has led to a pattern of pushing myself to the limits during term times,
    and crashing in the holidays.

    This winter I get married. I’ve been grumpy the past few
    weeks already with the pressure of what’s to do, while feeling too overwhelmed
    to do anything about it. I had already decided last night that something has to
    change, and I discovered this magazine and this article in God’s perfect
    timing. I still don’t know how to untangle myself from the commitments I have
    made and the lifestyle I’ve created, but I know now that I must try.

    Thank you.

    • olivechan

      Dear Becca,
      I, too, used the description of life imploding when I went through that experience. And I agree that God sometimes makes us stop and rest.

      I pray for you, as you prepare for marriage and make changes to your lifestyle. May you have the courage to say no and the wisdom to discern what to keep and what to put on hold. My husband was instrumental (and still is) to my recovery and learning to live within my limits (as a side note, we both wrote about our struggles with burnout and depression and how they affected our early years of marriage in our book, “Fight With Me,” which is free on timandolive.com – I say this only because I think you may find our experiences relevant).

      God’s Spirit is at work in you and HE will give you the strength to change.

      Many blessings to you!

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  • Julia C

    Hey Olive! I really needed to read that today!! Thanks for baring your soul! I had no idea that you’d been through so much. It’s encouraging to read.

  • Lauren

    Absolutely amazing. God revealed this truth to my heart before I hit the point of despair, but I’m still learning to tend my own spiritual formation. This was poignantly honest and beautifully written. Thank you for sharing.

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