This is what burnout looks like: bare feet.
It was during my last summer directing children’s programs; we had a field trip scheduled. Field trips were one of the students’ favorite activities, and at times, incredibly tiring for staff. The reality is that driving vans full of excited, loud children to a location full of other excited, loud children, can require a lot of patience and vigilance. Not to mention the goal of not swapping kids with any other groups along the way. This field trip was one though that my staff was thrilled about because we were going to Lego Land. They had actually been looking forward to it for weeks.
I remember the phone call with our partner who gave us the tickets right beforehand. “Remember to make sure the children have socks,” she said.
This was important because that was something many of these kids might not have on their own, or even if they did, the probability of them forgetting them was pretty high. During winter months, we usually had at least one child every day whom we had to chase down the road because they had left their coat lying lonely on the gym floor. But, these were the summer months in Georgia and heat was everywhere, as if the pavement was a slow cooking frying pan. The kids would all be wearing sandals or cheap flip flips that would probably break a few weeks in from the wear and tear of quick dodgeball turns.
She told me this need for socks the day of at 8 am. The kids were leaving at 9 am. I had every intention of having socks from our clothing closet. I remember thinking, “Yes, of course, this is important.” And, then I hung up the phone and there was a knock at my door and crisis after crisis walked in. I couldn’t breathe again till after 11. The next call I received was from our staff member at Lego Land asking me where I had put the socks on the bus. They had looked everywhere.
This was when my appearance of put-together, making-it-work, oh-yeah-I-can-do-it-all shattered. It was that small moment when I pictured 48 bare feet hanging off a bench watching others play and there was nothing I could do about it now.
If I sat down (and I did then) and did a step by step analysis of how it all broke down, I would have had to back up weeks ago, even months to when I started believing the mis-truth that “I’m doing just fine. This is just the way it has to be.” Because the reality was that I was making it work and it was also entirely unsustainable. I had built a building that was trying to meet everyone else’s needs, but not my own. And, I was even failing at that. There were so many other stories that were out of my control that last year. Stories of heartbreak and neglect and hopelessness. There were also other stories of laughter. I tried to pay attention to those. The sad ones I buried in deep pockets that grew heavier and heavier till it became harder and harder to move.
But, when I think of that summer, these intense emotions specifically about bare feet come up. Even writing this now brings feelings of familiar shame because who falls apart over socks? Well, it’s because it wasn’t the socks. Maybe you already saw that. It was the shame all along. This is something that’s difficult for those of us who look life in the face and have decided that they should be more than human. The ones who empty as if by doing so they can save others without first accepting their own pain and needs. And, that shame is why we keep silent as if we should be able to handle it. We will be affected. We will fall down. That is the full truth.
None of us are meant to live in burning buildings. Not me. And, not you. Save yourself first. Those that go back in will leave by certain miracles and because they continue to assess their own need. Take the time to recognize the pain you hold. Do the humble and valuable work of knowing your weakness. And, if you do choose to accept the risk to fight for lives, be sure you can ask others for help; you will need someone to remind you again to save your own life and that your wounds are holy. They have always been that way.