Audre wrote (as ever) an interesting post the other day on the importance of being still. For many of us, the lockdown in the UK, and what has followed, has provided an opportunity for that – welcome, or, as the many who are suffering financially and health-wise will attest, unwelcome. At the very least it has provided us with an opportunity to re-think. For some of us, well, for me at least, that has come after being forced in that direction by our own failure.
By nature and habit I am obsessive. Work is a matter of honour, what comes in to me gets done, and it does not matter if it is ‘after hours’ or at week-ends. It also has to be done properly, so I won’t skimp. Yes, I know I could get away with doing this or that in a few minutes if I skimmed over the difficult bits and left it for someone else, but … . And then there is the e-mail. Yes, I know it’s after supper, but the e-mails have come in and I need to deal with them because they are there and there will be more tomorrow. Yes, I know it’s Sunday, but … . In the end it was ‘but nothing!’ I burnt out. Even before lockdown I had been forced to reconsider things.
At first I disliked what I was seeing. I wanted to ‘be well’ to get back to work. It wasn’t just that there was a living to be earned (though there was), it was a matter of who I was. I was that woman to whom my bosses turned when they wanted to find this or that document, or to run their thoughts past; I was that woman who was always there and always reliable. In short, I was the grown up version of that ‘good girl’ who always did the right thing.
Then I realised that I had become a stranger to myself. That was what the ‘breakdown’ (as the medics were careful not to call it) was about. I had tried to become someone else, and my ‘real’ self had, in the end, after giving me signal after signal in vain, signed out; she didn’t want to be the ‘good girl’ whose worth was measured by her value to others and by their opinion of her; she wanted to be the girl God made. I had thought that the two girls were the same; my health told me that I was wrong. I had to relearn.
As I walked the country lanes and the fields here, in this most rural part of England, I reconnected with Nature. Brought up in Wales, I had always loved the mountains, with their majesty and their views, but I had lost touch with nature, as with so much else. Watching the corn grown and be harvested; watching the hedgerows change colour; collecting the balckberries and the sloes; watching the landscape change through the seasons, I became aware, once more, of God in creation – and gave thanks. This morning at the Harvest Festival, our rector reminded us of what Moses said to the people of Israel as they entered the Promised Land – remember to give thanks, because any success is of God, not of you.
That was the biggest of my errors. I had thought it was down to me and had relied on me. I am God’s creation, and yet I assumed that I knew what he wanted for me without actually asking him. Yes, I went to church and I prayed and read and blogged on religious topics, but was I listening? I had been sure I was, but I had not stopped – literally. If I had read Audre’s post back then, I’d have agreed with it, but not have realised what it really meant.
That is one reason why keeping the sabbath is so, so important. One day devoted to nothing but God, to rest in him, to thank him and to meditate upon his goodness to me. At first it was hard, but one of the blessings of having a breakdown is that it really gives you no choice, and at the very least, keeping the sabbath gave me an excuse for being what the old me would have called chronically lazy. Then, as I grew into it, as the rhythms became comfortable, as I felt God’s closeness once more, I saw the purpose of the sabbath. I think I also saw the purpose of the breakdown.
I was treating my life the way we have tended to treat the earth. I was mistress of my own fate, just as we think we are masters of the earth. My job was to use every hour productively, just as we think we are to use all the earth’s resources without regard to sustainability and the future. Productivity was all, just as it is for us in terms of our working lives. Comfort was to be found in consumption, though in truth, as I discovered, my needs were fewer than I had imagined. What I discovered the hard way, we as a species are discovering the hard way – we cannot just keep going in a way that is not sustainable.
I was fortunate to have a few good and loving friends who stayed with me through the darkness, and who were kind enough to share their love, and other things, with me. Do I know what the future holds for me? No. I have had the opportunity to walk those fields and country lanes because at the moment there is no work in my areas of expertise, and even if there were, I am not sure I am upto it at the moment. My other half earns enough to keep us both, and I am happy doing the domestic things I was brought up to do but forgot when I was so ‘busy’. I love to bake, so I bake. I have rediscovered my love of cooking, so I cook. My obssessiveness has always found an outlet in cleaning the flat or house and tidying up – you never saw a place as clean as our house!
But I have learned, at last, when and how to stop. I follow a regular routine of prayer, starting the day with morning prayer and finishing at Compline. Whatever else I am doing, or think I ought to be doing, I stop and spend some time with God. Moses was right, whatever good things we have, we owe thanks to God. Although it would have once suprised me to find myself saying so, burning out was a good thing and I thank God for his mercy. It was, I think, Newman, who said that we have such hard hearts that sometimes God has to break them to make them soil in which his seed can be planted. I think I now know what he meant.
For all good things, O God, we thank you.