Stretching Yourself Too Thin
Imagine for a moment, that you are working in an office. Your typical 9 to 5 job, your own cubicle along with your departmental tasks. You arrive into work optimistic and ready to take on the day. You start working when suddenly, your boss asks you to take on an additional assignment. You know that you have a lot on your plate, but you don’t want to disappoint the boss. So you say yes, and add the work onto your schedule. Then, throughout the day, 4 other co-workers approach you asking for help. Each time they ask, you think about how much extra work you’re doing, but you smile and agree to take it on, as you don’t want to let anyone down.
A week passes and you notice that you’re going to work less and less enthused. Suddenly, your boss comes up and practically drags you to a surprise 10 A.M meeting. You reluctantly go, fully aware that you have multiple deadlines quickly approaching. Half-way through the meeting, you realize that you were supposed to meet with one of your colleagues to discuss an urgent project. You rush out to meet your colleague at their desk, only to realize that you were also supposed to make a phone call to an important client. You’re now in the predicament of needing to juggle three tasks all at once.
Several weeks go by, and the stress begins to mount as you wear yourself down trying to be in multiple places at the same time. One day, while rushing from one meeting to the next, you suddenly pass out due to exhaustion and collapse in the hallway. You wake up in a hospital bed, hooked up to machines as you try to figure out what went wrong. This sudden wake-up call, which has now cost your physical health, has finally made you realize that something in your life needs to change.
I’m thankful that I’ve never encountered this extreme situation, but I easily could have. I’m a second year seminary student at McGill. Part of my education in Theological and Religious studies involves volunteering in a church. I’ve been volunteering in churches since I was 14 years old, and I grew up in a place where my family was well known for our involvement in the community.
Growing up in this environment, there was an unspoken expectation that I would follow in the path my family had laid out for me. I was immediately encouraged to start getting myself involved in the church. It started out with small things, like working on the audio system during services or joining the choir. Eventually my responsibilities grew, and I began joining committees like Music and Worship, the Board of Managers, and the hiring committee for a new organist.
Naturally, as I became more involved in the church community, more leadership opportunities began to present themselves. My step-mother was the head co-ordinator of the youth group, and she trained me to become a junior youth leader. I attended youth conferences representing the church community on a national scale, and I also attended a national church conference as a Young Adult Representative, representing 25 different local churches in my county.
All of these experiences were life-changing and made me the person I am today. I learned how to conduct myself in professional meetings, how budgeting worked, how to lead, how to speak in public, how to sing, and so much more. I wouldn’t trade these experiences for anything in the world. However, sometimes we forget that we aren’t robots capable of functioning without rest.
There is a crisis developing in the next generation. Many of today’s role models (Politicians, Clergy, Bosses, Motivational Speakers, Influencers) are reiterating one message: You are the leaders of tomorrow. Young people are called upon to make a difference and change the world we live in for the better. We are consistently portrayed as the ‘super-heroes’ who will save the planet from its perils, but many do not realize the burden this message is placing on our shoulders.
Often, we are encouraged to volunteer and to get active in the community. This is a fantastic thing, as it gives a voice to the younger generation who may feel marginalized or sidelined. However, there are times when we place too much pressure upon ourselves. We don’t want the older generation to see us as lazy and entitled, so we commit ourselves to go to every meeting, every fundraiser, and every event. We also want our resumes to look full and diverse, hoping that our volunteering experience will help us land that dream job.
But what does that hard work often turn out to become? We are forced to balance our academic, social, work, and personal life. As a seminary student, I often have to add my church and spiritual life to this balance on top of the other aspects. When we take on too many commitments and responsibilities, we often wear ourselves thin. It takes a toll, not only on our physical well-being, but our mental health as well.
After a few years, I burnt out. I felt like there was too much pressure to become involved in the church and to feel accepted as a contributing member of the church. I wanted people to see me not as an entitled teenage millennial looking for trouble, but rather as someone who was making a positive impact. This obsession festered to a point where I ultimately stopped going to church altogether when I left for university. I was turned off by the idea of being part of a church community because I didn’t want to repeat the same mistakes and over-dedicate myself again. I maintained my faith privately, but for the first two years of university, I distanced myself from church.
All too often, we blame ourselves when things don’t go the way we want them to. Whenever I try to turn my hopes into reality, 99% of the time the world seems to have other plans. We often have this vision that seems perfectly orchestrated in our heads, but all it takes is one mistake to take us out of sync.
The good news is that after taking that 2 year break, I re-introduced myself to church life. I found a fantastic church community that quickly accepted me. For the first few months, I made myself just sit in a pew and take in the experience. It had occurred to me that during my time at my church at home, I had never actually sat down to enjoy the service. I was at the sound board, in the choir, collecting the offering, reading scripture, performing pageants, or running some other errand. I had never allowed myself the time to simply listen.
It was refreshing to understand the service from the perspective of the parishioner. No singing in the choir, no running the sound system, no setting up fellowship hour, just sitting in the pew. It brought a perspective I never had before. After taking time to adjust to simply being at church, I slowly and gradually began volunteering again. I joined their choir and I got myself involved in their youth programs. It certainly didn’t have the same urgency as before. None of my parents were there and I was my own person, with no former reputation to live up to. I realized the need to pace myself and to give with a glad heart, but not to give so much to the point of exhausting myself. I was free to simply be.
After spending 2 years in a church in Ottawa, I answered God’s call to enter the seminary and started studying to become an Ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament. God was telling me that the gifts he gave me are to serve not only his church, but to the people around me. I realize that I have gifts that allow me to serve with a joyful attitude. Today, I am happily continuing to be an active member of God’s church, and while I’m still learning to pace myself, I’m living in a positive community of faith.
So what does mental health mean for you? Perhaps you may not be active in a church community and that’s ok. But maybe you’re involved in a campus club or another charitable organization in Montreal. Perhaps you are an active member of your faith community. Regardless of how or where you volunteer, I’m sure many of you feel the similar pressure that I do. Balancing social, academic, and personal lives can be a challenge. I don’t have the magic answer. I still work through some of these issues today. Learning how to say no to someone who loves hearing yes can be extremely difficult.
The best advice I can give is to understand your limitations. Realize that self-care must come first. Look for ways to reduce your workload, either by delegating tasks to others or by simplifying your work. When that’s not possible, consider stepping down from your position. The people you work with will manage, there is no need stressing yourself to the point of exhaustion.
We may be the generation that people look to for inspiration and change. We may be the young people of tomorrow. But today, we are working and volunteering in the here and now. We must make sure that we are still around for tomorrow. Learn your limitations, live by them, and always remember that you are just as important as the causes that you support. Becoming active in the community is important, but learning to find that balance is vital to not lose yourself. Hang in there, take a break when you need to, and remember that we are all only human.