I had no business quitting my job. I was making exceptional connections with students and the greater community. The retreat program that I oversaw had seen a substantial increase in participation. My church had asked me to join the Parish Council. Local charities were asking me to join their advisory boards. I was recognized as a trustworthy and upstanding teacher.
Everything was a success on the surface, and I was praised for my numerous commitments. My tired spirit and restless heart told a different story.
To be successful in the classroom meant spending most weeknights in my office well past sunset grading papers and creating lesson plans. Growing the retreat program meant spending nearly every free period in the cafeteria connecting with students, encouraging them to participate. To be a successful campus minister and witness of Gospel service meant spending most Saturdays volunteering and working with students at service sites. Establishing success in my roles on the parish council and advisory boards meant recreating my job without recreating my salary. These successes were accomplished by burning my candle at both ends. Rather than being cautioned to pull back or take a break, I was praised for how bright I was burning. After six years, the candle’s scent had lost its strength, the wax had evaporated, and igniting the wick burnt my hand.
My story is not uncommon. In 2019, Anne Helen Peterson published a widely shared article on BuzzFeed about Millennial Burnout. While her article focused on the burnout of a generation of over-worked, over-committed, and over-stressed people, the themes she highlighted are deeply rooted in our culture. Our culture encourages preparations for tomorrow at the detriment of today. From an early age, Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) and Gen Z (born between 1997 and 2012) have had manufactured schedules that more closely resemble a corporate executive than a developing adolescent. Two generations of children were raised to maximize their potential by loading their schedule with classes, practices, extracurriculars, puberty, internships, college visits, volunteering, clubs, and test prep courses as if they were designer products off an assembly line. Their lives were only considered “valuable exclusively in terms of [their] activity in the marketplace” and their ability for future commercial success.
These well established corporate lessons from childhood manifest into exacting and calculating objectives in adulthood. Mirroring the ever-crammed schedules of their childhood, adults establish over-committed schedules that force them to feel a “need to give [themselves] permission to eat, bathe, and pay bills,” lest they feel inadequate by disrupting their market value. This “need” to feel productive creates an internalized panic within people to always feel behind schedule. As people race against time, personal priorities are overshadowed by professional responsibilities. Breathing, sleeping, and socializing are pushed to the margins and left for the ever-delayed and rarely-taken vacation. As market-values continue to saturate our culture, preparations for tomorrow will ever-increase, and our availability for today will ever-decrease.
No longer tanned by the sun, individuals are branded by their corporate, social media identity. Between meetings and appointments, individuals curate their social media persona detailing precisely the image that best reflects their personal brand—not their personality. Manufacturing plants are no longer the only assembly lines of our society. The endless thumbing scroll of Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, LinkedIn, Snapchat, these continual feeds are now the fastest producing assembly lines of our world. It is our humanity, our brand, that has become our greatest commodity. Envy over someone’s property (such as their car, house, boat, or jewelry) has been replaced with insidious jealousy over someone’s life. The person, not an object or thing, has become the product to consume.
The commodification and branding of a person’s life have produced a “generation of finely honed tools, crafted from embryos to be lean, mean production machines.” This warped understanding of humanity replaces the interchangeable machinery parts of traditional equipment with human lives. Regardless of the interchangeable component, these new human-parts must remain effective, efficient, and accessible. Hundreds of emails expect a response before the coffee is brewed. Voicemails demand return calls by noon. New meetings are scheduled before 3 PM to meet the new deadline. Another hundred emails expect a response. Missed calls need returning before the close of business. All the while, laundry continues to pile up in the corner of your bedroom, dishes stack higher in the sink, takeout boxes stack beside the trashcan, and another hundred emails expect a response before bed. Unlike traditional interchangeable components, human beings are not replaceable, yet wear and tear remains.
Wrapped up in the productive brand, individuals focus on work and neglect their personal lives. Any form of self-indulgent leisure is seen as a weakness, and managing one’s personal responsibilities is considered a waste of time.Time, itself, like people, is an expendable product to be managed effectively. While self-care and downtime may be considered periphery priorities to be forgotten, research suggests that the mind and body need time to recover and decompress. Neglecting the body’s need to rest reduces its maximum capacity for producing quality work. This is the perpetual motion of burnout.
Recognized as a psychological diagnosis in 1974, psychologist Herbert Freudenberger applied the term “burnout” to individuals who were “overworked and stressed” as an alternative to exhaustion. Where exhaustion meant pushing a steam engine to the brink, burnout implied going to the brink and moving further with no end in sight. Beneath endless numbing tasks, burnout fuels the anxiety-ladened schedules of many and saturates each layer of their life.
Burnout is so widespread, so saturated in all aspects of people’s lives because burnout is the hazardous waste of compartmentalization. Our lives are not products for efficiency. Our humanity is not a commodity to be branded. Unlike our social media profiles, we cannot curate our existence. Our lives cannot be contained in manufactured sepia-toned squares. Our personality cannot be rebranded. The person behind Snapchat, Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn is the same person. The person in the class, at the bar, at work, in the car, out with colleagues, talking with mom, responding to emails, out with friends, grocery shopping, doing laundry, and answering calls is all the same person. We are integrated beings.
Something must change. We cannot continue to run ourselves ragged. We must recognize the need to respond to the signs of our times and work to resist the cycle of burnout.
How then does one move against the productive current of our culture?
How might one stop to refuel?
How might we prevent burnout?
How does someone “lay down the profanity of clattering commerce”?
How do we manufacture an anti-burnout theology?
The trap is to give into market-expectations and manufacture solutions to solve this burnout problem: to design an app that efficiently prevents burnout; to plan an anti-burnout event; to create a program that succinctly details the advantages of times; to do; to do, and to do. Falling into this trap would not solve burnout. It would only perpetuate the issue. Creating one more thing to do, to add to an already crammed schedule. The solution is not “to do” but “to be.” Millennials have been “doing” since birth. Doing all of the right things to prepare for the next step. Creating an illusion that their brand is their identity. Confusing their persona with their personality. Humans are “beings” not “doings.” In 1955, Thomas Merton wrote, No Man is an Island, and 65 years later, his warning remains true:
We are warmed by the fire, not the smoke of the fire. We are carried over the sea by a ship, not by the wake of a ship. So too, what we are is to be sought in the invisible depths of our own being, not in outward reflection in our own acts. We must find our real selves not in the froth stirred up by the impact of our being upon the beings around us, but in our own soul which is the principle of all our acts.
For too long, we have been deceived that “doing” defines our humanity. We have clung to productivity and the falsehood that the market determines our value. We have lost our identity. We have lost our sense of self.
When we constantly look in the mirror of our own acts, our spiritual double-vision splits us into two people. We strain to see and we forget which image is real. In fact, reality is no longer found either in himself or in his shadow. The substance has gone out of itself into the shadow and he has become two shadows instead of one real person. Then the battle begins. Instead of one shadow praising the other, it accuses the other. The activities that were meant to exalt us now condemn us. We can never be real enough or active enough. The less we are able to BE the more we must DO. We are now our own slave driver – a shadow whipping a shadow to death, because it cannot produce reality out of our own nonentity. Then comes fear. We who “are not” become terrified by what we cannot do. We had illusions of power and sanctity, but now tidal waves of nonentity, powerlessness, hopelessness surge up in us with every action we attempt. The shadow hates and judges the shadow who is not a god and who can do absolutely nothing.
The shadows of our social media profiles, over-committed workload, commodified bodies, and burnt-out wicks haunt our lives.
There is not a straightforward solution to respond to burnout. There is, however, a call to being. If burnout oversaturates our lives with hazardous, relentless stress, perhaps our response is not to look outward for something but to draw inwards upon ourselves. We have been misguided by the belief that if we “do” enough, we can “be” whom we want to be. In that “doing,” we destroyed our “being.”
We lost sight of the truth that we are a blessed people made in the image and likeness of God. Our very being, our existence, makes us worthy of God’s loving, dwelling, presence. Our doing has numbed our ability to see the truth of God alive in our being. In order to heal our burned-out beings, we must rediscover the reality of God in our lives.
In order to find God in ourselves, we must stop looking at ourselves, stop checking and verifying ourselves in the mirror of our own futility, and be content to BE in God and to do whatever God wills, according to our limitations, judging our acts not in the light of our own illusions, but in the light of God’s reality which is all around us in the things and people we live with.
In the struggle to manufacture our lives, curate our brands, and juggle our tasks, we designed an alternative reality where acceptance and love were defined by “likes,” quick email responses, and neglecting our livelihood. Our futile attempts to achieve success would never hit the ever-rising bar. Humanity was not designed for a reality that prioritizes profitability, but a reality that prioritizes the presence of God’s light contained within, throughout, and among all humanity.
I had no business doing so much. I had no business forgetting to eat. I had no business substituting caffeine for sleep. I had no business prioritizing work over my livelihood. I had no business treating myself like a business. I had no business burning my candle on both ends to appear brighter. Fueled by distinguished praise, I worked tirelessly to achieve an impossible standard of igniting change. I was deceived that pursuing the magis would allow me to set the world on fire. I spent all of my time in action and not in contemplation. I neglected the wisdom of cura personalis. I fanned the flames of my light, only to be dwindled daily by the sun. My light was not any more distinguished than the rest. I did not set the world on fire. I extinguished my flame.
Scripture reminds us that the light contained within us is enough. Our light is just as bright and just as important as the lights of all humanity. It is not our doing that will save us, but our being. To be is enough. As the mind-numbing thumbing of social media prolongs and the commodification of our humanity continues to be manufactured, I pray that our interchangeable human parts be designed as instruments for a higher purpose.
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is doing, being;
Where there is consumption, contemplation;
Where there is stress, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is burnout, ignition;
O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not work so much
To find comfort as to be comfortable;
To distress than to be at rest;
To be discontent than to be content;
To consume as to conserve;
To be humane as to be human;
To be busy as to be.
For it is in living that we live;
It is in loving that we are love;
And it is in being that we are born to eternal life.
 Anne Helen Petersen, “How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation,” BuzzFeed News, January 5, 2019, https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/annehelenpetersen/millennials-burnout-generation-debt-work.
 William Deresiewicz, “The Neoliberal Arts: How College Sold Its Soul to the Market,” Harper’s Magazine , 2015, pp. 25-32, 26.
 Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber, “Time Management and Timelessness,” in The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017), pp. 16-32, 17.
 Ibid., 25.
 Petersen, 14.
 Berg and Seeber, 30.
 Petersen, 16.
 Berg and Seeber, 31.
 Ibid., 30.
 Petersen, 15.
 Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for the Modern Man (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), 22.
 Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island (Boston, MA: Shambhala, 2005), 123.
 Ibid., 125-126.
 Ibid., 126.
 Timothy Hanchin, “Messianic or Bourgeois?,” America, May 8, 2006, pp. 11-13, 13.
 Job 29:3; Isaiah 60:1; John 1:5
 Psalm 139: 7-12; 1 John 1:5-9
 Psalm 44:3.
 Psalm 46:10.