Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle

     Research has found that meaning is most likely to come from three kinds of sources:15

1. pursuit and achievement of ambitious goals that leave a legacy—as in “finding a cure for HIV” or “making the world a better place for these kids”;

2. service to the divine or other spiritual calling—as in “attaining spiritual liberation and union with Akal” or “glorifying God with my words, thoughts, and deeds”; and

3. loving, emotionally intimate connection with others—as in “raising my kids so they know they’re loved, no matter what” or “loving and supporting my partner with authenticity and kindness.”

Many sources of meaning are a combination of all three, and if your Something Larger falls outside these three categories, that’s cool, too. In terms of your personal well-being, there is no right or wrong source of meaning; there’s just whatever gives you the feeling that your life has a positive impact.16

What’s Your Something Larger?

Some people know exactly what their Something Larger is, and others take years to figure it out. Amelia has always known, even when she didn’t know she knew. She has wanted to be a choral conductor since she was twelve, and here she is, with three degrees in leading choral ensembles and an impressive résumé of conducting gigs. Emily stumbled from school to work to school again until, looking back to trace the pattern of the doors she had walked through, she finally figured it out, about twenty years after Amelia. Emily’s Something Larger: teaching women to live with confidence and joy inside their bodies. Amelia’s: art. There are plenty of other ways we could contribute—there is no end of need in the world—but these make us feel that we are contributing something positive to the world. Which is how we make meaning.

Our experiences discovering the sources of meaning in our lives might suggest there is no predictable way for each individual to find it for themselves. But the common thread is an inner voice that you can hear if you stop and listen. Everyone has it.

Hear that? The steady rhythm in the center of your chest?

Or maybe it’s a slower pulse lower down, somewhere in the swell of your belly. Or a halo of wisdom crowning your skull. Stop for a minute—literally stop reading, maybe even set a timer—and listen. Ask yourself, What am I doing when I feel most powerfully that I’m doing what I’m meant to be doing?

Dolores Hart was a movie star with a gift for listening to that voice with what she calls “the ear of the heart.” In 1964, she had starred in several major motion pictures, played a leading lady to Elvis Presley, and was starring in a Broadway play when she visited the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut, for a rest. At the age of twenty-four, she was a rising star with everything the world valued most: beauty, professional success and prestige, money, and a handsome fiancé. But she had been feeling like something was wrong, something was missing.

     As soon as she set foot on the abbey grounds, she felt like she had come home. Not long after, she took her vows and committed her life to God’s service. She describes it:

     In a sense, I never really felt like a person until I came to Regina Laudis. Staying was not a compromise, but, in fact, the real challenge of my life….I had not chosen to escape my responsibilities by secluding myself from reality. I believed that if there is to be an ultimate and real salvation for the whole of mankind, it must begin by a very personal involvement.17

She didn’t enter the abbey because Catholicism offered a set of answers she preferred. Even as an inmate of a Roman Catholic monastic community, she says, “I am not easily persuaded by religious answers….I have found my answers step by step.”

If you’re still struggling to recognize your Something Larger, research has found a few strategies that can help:

Try writing your own obituary or a “life summary” through the eyes of a grandchild or a student.

Ask your closest friends to describe the “real you,” the characteristics of your personality and your life that are at the core of your best self.

Imagine that someone you care about is going through a dark moment in their life—they’ve experienced significant loss and feel helpless and isolated (the two things that drain us of meaning fastest). As your best self, write that person a letter to support them through this difficult time. Then reread it. It’s for you.18

Finally, think of a time when you experienced an intense sense of meaning or purpose or “alignment” or whatever it feels like for you. What were you doing? What was it that created that sense of meaning?

All these approaches can help you distinguish your inner voice’s genuine sense of Something Larger from the thing that gets in the way—namely, Human Giver Syndrome.

Human Giver Syndrome

In the introduction, we described philosopher Kate Manne’s language of “human givers” versus “human beings,” a cultural code in which human beings have a moral obligation to be their whole humanity, while human givers have a moral obligation to give their whole humanity, and give it cheerfully. We call the behavior patterns associated with these moral convictions “Human Giver Syndrome.”

Think of Human Giver Syndrome as a virus whose only goal is to perpetuate its own existence. You were infected with it as soon as you were born, inhaling it with your very first breath. And, just as the rabies virus makes dogs aggressive and bovine spongiform encephalopathy makes cows “mad,” Human Giver Syndrome changes human behavior in order to perpetuate itself—even if it kills the host (that’s us) in the process.

Do you suffer from Human Giver Syndrome? Symptoms include

? believing you have a moral obligation—that is, you owe it to your partner, your family, the world, or even to yourself—to be pretty, happy, calm, generous, and attentive to the needs of others;

? believing that any failure to be pretty, happy, calm, generous, and attentive makes you a failure as a person;

? believing that your “failure” means you deserve punishment—even going so far as to beat yourself up; and

? believing these are not symptoms, but normal and true ideas.

That last one is the crux, of course. What makes this metaphorical “virus” so successful as an infectious agent is that its symptoms are self-masking. It blinds you to its presence and is self-perpetuating—that is, we are surrounded by people who are also “infected,” and they, too, treat themselves and us and everyone as if Human Giver Syndrome were just normal human behavior, which reinforces our own sense that it is not a disease at all, but a healthy, normal way to live.

     If you were raised in a culture shaped by Human Giver Syndrome, you were taught to prioritize being pretty, happy, calm, generous, and attentive to the needs of others, above anything else. Maybe—maybe—you can pursue your own personal (read: selfish) Something Larger, if you’ve thoroughly met the needs of everyone else and don’t stop being pretty and calm while you do it.

On the surface, Human Giver Syndrome seems to support some Something Largers, like being of service. Service is what givers are supposed to do anyway, and it is a defining characteristic of the great figures of history.

Audre Lorde: “When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”19

Malala Yousafzai: “I raise up my voice—not so I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard.”

Shirley Chisholm: “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”

Hillary Clinton: “Do all the good you can, for all the people you can, in all the ways you can, for as long as you can.”20

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