Fighting fatigue

Self-care is a necessity when we are tired on so many levels

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“I am tired.” These two words echo in my head in this unusual season. When the pandemic first struck in March and we were sheltering at home, I heard people say it was time to pick up a new hobby, read the classics, learn to make sourdough bread.

I was juggling three jobs—working as an interim pastor, therapist and seminary instructor—and scrambling to move all three professions to an online format. Thank goodness I learned to make sourdough bread during our years with Mennonite Central Committee because these days, I am too tired.

There are many reasons to be tired. We are tired of worrying about getting the virus or about it ravaging those we love. We are tired of being cooped up with family or feeling isolated sheltering in place as a single. We are tired of the demands of work or the uncertainty of unemployment. We are tired of racial, political and economic divisions in our country. We are tired of modified church experiences, not getting to serve others in familiar ways, of vacation plans being canceled and more.

Naming our tiredness and exploring the sources of our fatigue is a starting point. I believe that finding renewal in the midst of weariness comes from a clear call to love God, others and myself. Creating a rhythm of active engagement and sabbath rest can sustain us when we get tired.

Fatigue in many forms

Our lives have been turned upside down by this pandemic, and we see the suffering it has caused those around us medically, financially and emotionally. We may already be familiar with Compassion Fatigue, when we become numb or indifferent to the suffering of others. Caring for others without also practicing self-care can lead to burnout. But that isn’t the only type of fatigue we encounter in fighting not one, but two, deadly viruses: COVID-19 and racism.

You may have read about Caution Fatigue, a term that appeared a few months into our long journey with COVID-19. Fear is a strong motivator, at least short term. Our fear causes us to rethink many daily decisions that used to require no effort, like grocery shopping or visiting our elderly parents. Our brains use a tremendous amount of energy on these decisions, especially when emerging medical information is confusing or inconsistent.

Our brains are not designed to stay in high alert for extended periods of time, so when Caution Fatigue sets in, we start to believe the threat is not real and stop following safety guidelines. Once we turn new safety practices into habits, we may feel less tired. However, the dangerous temptation will be to ignore the guidelines because it is too exhausting to navigate a balanced approach that cares for self and others with minimized risk.

The second deadly virus, racism, isn’t new to our nation. While people of color have long experienced the effects of individual and systemic racism, it has become newly visible to many of us. Blatant and brutal incidences of racism as well as daily experiences of being insulted, discounted or denied privileges can contribute to Racial Battle Fatigue. Racial Battle Fatigue describes the fear and stress that a person of color may experience in the face of racial hostilities.

While walking with a friend, she described her heightened experience of feeling fearful in public, wondering if she will be confronted for being different. She shared the pain of feeling like an outsider, of not being accepted and living with the reminder that she doesn’t belong. It can be easy to start believing that something is wrong with her, she said, internalizing the racist stereotypes and accepting the lie that she is inferior. Carrying that level of fear and stress understandably contributes to exhaustion, anger and avoidance. When my brothers and sisters of color say they are tired, I believe it.

As a person who benefits from being white, there is also a danger that my own fatigue will sideline me in the fight for justice and equality. Even though I may not agree with racism and find it incompatible with the kingdom of God, I may become overwhelmed with the magnitude of the injustice and succumb to White Fatigue. It starts by thinking racism is essentially personal and that I’ve sufficiently addressed my own individual racial attitudes. White Fatigue happens when I’m encouraged to address systemic racism found in the very fabric of our society, but it seems too complex. So I exit the conversation and wish we could talk about something else.

Learning about the impact of racism and engaging in personal transformation, dialogue and action is hard work. White Fatigue is understandable but not an excuse. People of color in our communities are challenging their white friends not to fade away from the fight against racism after the initial marches and posts on Facebook. Addressing systemic change is going to take dedicated effort over time and can’t be abandoned at the end of the news cycle or when we hit roadblocks to change. Bowing out of the conversation because of White Fatigue is a privilege not afforded to those who are exhausted by Racial Battle Fatigue.

Care for self and others

Fatigue on so many levels makes self-care a necessity. For Christians, self-care is connected to care for others: Love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:31). Loving God and living in the experience of being loved by God forms the foundation for caring for others and myself.

I hold with compassion the pain of Racial Battle Fatigue that I do not experience myself. Knowing that Caution Fatigue and White Fatigue can wear me down, I find myself contemplating how I can be grounded in sustainable practices that nurture love of God, others and self. Pondering two questions has helped me stay engaged in ways that can both foster renewal and show sustained love for others.

Why am I doing what I am doing? If I follow COVID-19 safety guidelines only out of fear or because I am following orders, my motivation may plummet at some point. If I engage issues of racism in our country to avoid being called a racist or because it is trendy, those reasons will not sustain my effort over time.

However, if my love for God and others is central and my desire to participate in kingdom work is my focus, then I have a better shot at staying the course. Galatians 6:9-10 (CEB) is an encouragement and challenge: “Let’s not get tired of doing good, because in time we’ll have a harvest if we don’t give up. So then, let’s work for the good of all whenever we have an opportunity, and especially for those in the household of faith.”

The household of faith obviously includes our local congregations but also extends far beyond it to include my brothers and sisters across our city, nation and world.

Because all are created in the image of God (imago Dei), we work for the good of all. Compassionate social engagement is a beautiful source of renewal because it allows us to be active rather than passive. The release of energy that comes from purposefully doing good is an antidote to fatigue.

Take a rest

Am I practicing sabbath rest? Fatigue sets in when I am not building rest and renewal into my routine. Isaiah 40:31 reminds us that waiting and hoping in the Lord renews our strength. Sabbath reminds me that I am dependent on God as my creator and sustainer. Kingdom work is God’s work into which we are invited to participate.

Sabbath rest can take many forms, and it is best when we nurture a variety of ways to be renewed. External and internal rest are both needed. We can reduce our stress and reset our brain with physical exercise and deep breathing. Surrounding ourselves with God’s creation quickly puts things in perspective. Meditating on Scripture or breath prayers center our body, mind and soul. Creatively connecting with others even while maintaining physical distance is possible via letters, texting and phone calls. Despite the gifts that come with connecting online, we might also add Zoom Fatigue to our fast-growing list of what makes us tired.

We will each need to develop strategies that work for us, recognizing that previous ways to engage in sabbath rest may no longer be helpful or possible. When my three jobs all moved home with me, I found the combination of worship music and a jigsaw puzzle allowed me to shut out competing demands and invite my mind, body and soul to reset.

Working for the good of all prevents me from becoming indulgent in my self-care. Sabbath rest provides a necessary balance to my active engagement. Without sabbath rest, I may begin to buckle under the burden that I was never meant to carry alone. Tiredness is understandable. It is also God’s loving invitation to finding a new balance of caring for others and myself.

Cheryl Dueck Smith
Cheryl Dueck Smith is a licensed marriage and family therapist at Link Care Center in Fresno and an adjunct faculty member and advisor at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary. She served as the interim executive pastor at North Fresno MB Church, Fresno, Calif., September 2019 through September 2020. Smith is married and has two sons.

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