There's a lyric in a old rock 'n roll song that declares, "It's better to burn out than fade away." This notion of "burnout" implies a fiery nova that disappears in a flashy and brilliant display. But burnout also stirs another image. That of someone who has given all that they can and has nothing left, their tanks on empty, their reserves gone. They feel depressed and fatigued to the point of complete powerlessness. A deeply rooted state of lethargy or apathy brought about by prolonged stress, overwork, or intense activity. A shroud none too easily removed.
Burnout can overtake us as well when our routine becomes rote and meaningless. When we can't remember why we are doing what we are doing. Activities and feelings that we were once passionate about only leave us numb and unsure. We devote significant time and energy and spirit to volunteering only to feel unappreciated, unimportant, and unnecessary. We kill ourselves year after year at work on project after project but none of it really matters and nobody else seems to give so much of themselves. We go to church on Sundays and spend time in our devotionals, and we try to transform how we live to become something that we weren't. All too often we are plagued by doubts and uncertainties and often miss what we have left behind.
But how do we proceed when we are struck down and afflicted? Burnout rocks us and steals our joy and our purpose. It can make us feel like we have wasted our precious resources of time, money, and mind. No deposit, no return. Staring at lines of regret across our faces. But withdrawal and closing in on ourselves is likely more destructive than anything else we could do. Going through the motions and continuing forward on the same worn path is also no way to live. But maybe there is something that we can take away from the season of burnout to balance out the ledger. Could it be that exploring our position, to appreciate who we are really volunteering for, who we honor when we work to the fullness of our abilities, and why we strive to live transformed lives even if we are not fully successful, might just help us to resettle attitudes and priorities, as well as to devise more personal answers to questions that rattle our minds? Only then can we appreciate that the fire from burnout might be present not to burn us to ashes, but to forge us into something stronger.