Caring for the Care-givers: A Plea

When I sat down at the computer at 4 am this morning, my intention was to write an entry summarizing some remarks I made during a recent NetVUE gathering at Pepperdine University.  Instead, I ended up writing about a conversation I’d had during a car ride at the conference—a conversation that, I think, is the reason I was awake at 4 am. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it, and I’ve had several other conversations about it since I got back to my own campus. It was a conversation about vocation, burnout, and suicide.

In one section of his beautiful, funny, and moving essay, “Called by Our Conflicting Allegiances: Vocation as an Interfaith Endeavor/Interfaith Cooperation as a Vocation,” Noah Silverman writes about what happens when you’re lucky enough to live out your vocation—when your job actually matches your calling, when what you do really matters, but when what you do is also all about dealing with important but intractable problems that you know will never be “fixed.” You know there will always be more work to be done, more pain to be assuaged, more blood (whether literal or metaphorical) to be stanched. How can you give yourself permission to rest? And how can it be possible that some days, you dread going to work, even when you’re in your dream job, when you’ve found work that is all you’ve ever wanted to do, without making yourself feel like you’re the biggest loser in the world? 

This, of course, is my interpretation of Noah’s words.  Here’s what he actually says:

Perhaps ironically, then, even as I find fulfillment and coherence in my vocational work, it remains deeply incomplete. The beauty and the burden of responding to multiple callings is that we are never allowed to feel fully reconciled. By definition, there will always be, within the community that I am trying to build, people and positions that I find questionable or even objectionable. Understanding one’s vocation as an interfaith endeavor carries with it the recognition that, on some level, one never gets to feel totally integrated. The greatest challenge, I suppose, is learning to find contentment in that which is always fundamentally incomplete.

Noah Silverman, “Called by Our Conflicting Allegiances,” Hearing Vocation Differently (172-173).

There is a sense, I suppose, in which we all feel fundamentally incomplete a lot of the time. And I think that, for people whose vocation revolves around providing care for others, they must know that their work will never be done. How, then, can they give themselves permission to rest, to refuel, and how do they keep their spirits afloat?

Revisiting the idea of Sabbath

I studied Indian Buddhism in graduate school, and I’m currently teaching a course on it to a wonderful group of undergraduates. We were watching a documentary the other day, and a Sri Lankan monk said something so seemingly simple but so profound, and it blows me away every time I hear it. (I show this documentary every time I teach the course—I think, in some ways, because I need to hear it every few years). He explains, and I’m paraphrasing, “You can’t love anyone else if you don’t love yourself.” The camera lingers on his face, and he’s looking at his interviewer. His interviewer must be looking back at him with some sort of puzzled incredulity, because after a few seconds, the monk starts to laugh gently.  

“You can’t love anyone if you don’t love yourself.” You can’t provide succor to anyone else, you can’t be present for them, really listen to them and hear their pain or try to figure out what they really need if you’re busy beating yourself up for being tired or for sometimes dreading going to work, or, you know, for simply being human.

And this is where my thinking about caring for the caregivers comes in. My brother-in-law, for example, is an emergency room physician. I think about what that must feel like, to be surrounded by pain and suffering all the time at work: how can one find the capacity to be caring for one’s patients without being pulled under? How do doctors and nurses maintain enough distance to be able to do their jobs without becoming hardened?  

I think that most of us who work in higher education know that there has been an uptick in the number of suicides and suicide attempts on college and university campuses in recent years (including on my own campus), as well as an increase in the number of students seeking out counseling services. (And I’m very glad more students are seeking counseling services.) I have a very distinct memory of looking out of my office window one day last spring and seeing a friend of mine who works in counseling services walking across campus. She is a kind, bright, sunny, gentle woman.  She was alone, walking, and her head was low, her shoulders slumped, and she looked like she had the weight of the world on her shoulders. 

Who is caring for these caregivers? Who is caring for our chaplains? Who is caring for our devoted teachers, especially the ones students trust to have several boxes of tissues handy? These are the caregivers whose vocation it is to provide such care, who want to provide this care. But these are also often the very people for whom, for a variety of reasons, it is very, very difficult to admit that they also need care. Or, they are very likely not willing to feel that they can or are worthy of taking the time to give themselves care.

Shall I personalize this?  I sometimes describe myself as a “spongy” person. I tend to absorb the feelings in a room, whether good or bad. I think this is (usually) an asset, and something that can help me work as a mediator and a good listener. But at some point every day, I desperately need some alone time to “squeeze out the sponge” and regroup. And sometimes there just isn’t enough time to get all the water/accumulated feelings out. That’s just the way life is. 

Last spring, I felt particularly “absorbent.” There were several things I was working on in my administrative role that were sensitive—and important and fulfilling in terms of vocation—but wow, my sponge was saturated. I’ve also hit the point in my life when my body likes to remind me that I’m not the youngster I used to be, and that if I push myself too hard, there will be a price to pay.  

Once graduation time rolled around, I realized I was more burned out than usual.  I had read about burnout and realized that I was teetering on the edge of depression. So, once I got some tasks wrapped up, I gave myself permission to take July to just unplug from Wofford for a while: to read novels, stare off into space, and sift through some boxes of old pictures (my parents had both recently died within the past five years, and I hadn’t had the stamina to sort through the photographs yet, but really wanted to). July leaked into August a little, and eventually, I felt like myself again. Am I late on a book review I promised to write and a report I need to send to some colleagues? Yep. Might I seem a little flaky to them? Yep. But I think I’m going to maybe live a little longer, be better in my work, and not feel like curling up into the fetal position at the end of the day. {For more on burn-out, see Jon Malesic’s “Vocation and the Realities of Burn-out.”}

I mentioned a conversation I had in the car during the conference at Pepperdine. I was riding with two colleagues who had worked in different facets of higher education and chaplaincy. We had gotten into some deep conversations in the way that sometimes happens at these kinds of meetings. I was talking to them about my concerns for caregivers, and one of my new friends told me about these two events: the recent suicide of a pastor who was known for his mental health advocacy, and another recent suicide of the executive director of counseling and psychological services at the University of Pennsylvania. I was stunned—I can’t even find adequate words to describe what I felt, but as I mentioned, it had me up this morning at 4 am. I suppose, then, I will end with a plea. 

Please, let’s all try to be mindful of our own needs as well as those of others, and let’s all think of ways to support each other in our vocations. And to those of us who are college administrators, let’s also work together to support each other in our work, which is exhausting and in which we are often targeted as symbols for a wide range of disgruntlement (sometimes rightly, sometimes not), and therefore might feel that we have to armor ourselves to survive, much like, I would imagine, emergency room medical teams often do. Let us not get hardened, but rather, try to reach out to each other, at least. And let’s try to create cultures where the caregivers with whom we work don’t have to feel like they need to feign stoicism and feign productivity until they are at a breaking point.

Dr. Katherine “Trina” Janiec Jones is Associate Provost for Curriculum and Co-Curriculum and Professor of Religion at Wofford College. Her essay, “Reviving Sheila: Listening to the Call of Multiple Religious Belonging” was published in the NetVUE collection Hearing Vocation Differently: Meaning, Purpose, and Identity in the Multi-Faith Academy (Oxford University Press, 2019).

One thought on “Caring for the Care-givers: A Plea

  1. Nice post. You write beautifully. I have this to say about being a caregiver: I used to think I had missed my chance to do something powerful. I used to search for a way to exhibit my “authentic self.” I thought I needed to do something outstanding, worthy of accolades. Then I found myself feeling challenged by the job I had – and fulfilled by the daily challenges. I was nurtured by my surroundings and colleagues, both intellectually and soulfully. I kept putting off retirement , thinking the day would come that I knew it was time. But it never came. I finally decided it was time merely because I didn’t want to get to a time when I would be asked to retire. So, being a caregiver can be very difficult in certain circumstances. I’m sure it can prey on your mind and body. The right circumstance landed in my lap – for me. It answered my need to feel indispensable and my desire to continue to learn; and my accolades came from my own heart – knowing I was doing good work.

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