I’ve been feeling quite burned out at work lately. Partly, it’s just the nature of any job over time—I don’t know anyone who works and doesn’t go through bouts of wondering whether the benefits are worth the drawbacks from time to time. My burn-out is also partly because in my job, in order to do it well, I have to keep compassion in my heart and mind even as I take on a wide variety of tasks. I have to be compassionate when I’m telling people no. I have to be compassionate when I’m telling people they’re in trouble. Etc. I’m certainly not perfect at that, but it’s what I strive for, because I think all of us deserve to have those around us remember our humanity even when we are not at our best.
The catch is, I have to have more of a focus on me lately than I usually require. I’ve been doing some physical and emotional healing, and that’s meant that I’ve gotten tired easily–tired physically, tired mentally, tired emotionally. By only a couple of hours into work each day, I have burned through my stamina and have felt like I’m running pretty close to empty. So when occasions have arisen that have needed for me to have a little perspective, to offer some kindness in a difficulty, to remember that a person is still a person even when he/she is acting irritating/frustrating/ridiculous, I have struggled. With no emotional, mental, and physical reserves for me to draw from to handle situations well, I have instead seethed with stress, stumbled over what to do, or avoided dealing with the situations. Or all three.
I’ve needed inspiration. I’ve needed relaxation. I’ve needed some compassion myself. After missing work on Tuesday, I returned on Wednesday to have my co-workers tell me about two very inspirational events I had missed the day before. One was a visit from a favorite homeowner, who had brought the bounty of her large garden to share with our staff. The other was an appointment with someone who was newly approved for a house—someone who is nearing what most of us would consider retirement age, after a life of hard work, serious illnesses, and struggles, but who has maintained a sense of wonder and excitement about the world. Someone who is thrilled to be part of the Habitat process. I was very sad on Wednesday that I had missed the chance, on Tuesday, to be present for two events to remind myself why I struggle through the bad stuff to do the work I do.
A few nights ago, when my husband arrived home from the work-out I could not yet go do, I served us dinner and then launched into a tirade about a work situation. I ended up in tears telling him how frustrated I feel, and how I’m not sure what to do long-term about how I feel. Talking to him, I realized part of what I have written here. And then I realized that to go in to work the very next day and face the exhaustion all over again, and to face, that next day, an unpleasant task that I absolutely had to handle, I had to do something to rejuvenate myself.
“Let’s go to H—,” I said, naming the 52-house subdivision my Habitat affiliate has been developing for the last three years. The first people I approved for houses were the first occupants of the subdivision, and it’s just grown from there. Sometimes I tell people it’s our “Little UN” because of the huge variety of nationalities we have living in the one subdivision—many proud immigrants on top of the natural-born Americans who also have built their homes there.
“Okay. . . . Wait, right now?” He looked at his watch. 8 p.m. already.
“Yes, let’s go right now. I need to be out there. I need to remind myself why I do this.” I was firm, and he could tell I was serious, so he got his keys and wallet for the 20-minute drive.
We pulled into the subdivision and down the street to the newest house we have completed, which isn’t yet occupied. “Do you want to see inside?” I asked him.
“Sure,” he replied. I got the key from the lockbox, opened the door, and turned on the lights. But then I spied one of our newest homeowners striding down the road in front of the house. She was obviously walking for exercise.
And that did my heart good. Here’s the thing: most of our Habitat homeowners come from neighborhoods and apartments where they wouldn’t dream of walking outside at night. Or letting their kids play outside, night or day. They generally come from unsafe neighborhoods with unsafe apartments. The woman walking outside was armed robbed in her previous abode, yet here she felt safe enough to walk down the street at night, alone, for exercise. We went outside to talk to her for a few minutes, and then we wandered down the street. I could hear kids calling to each other, playing a game in one family’s yard. Another homeowner, outside to tend the plants in her front yard, called to me in surprise at seeing me walking the neighborhood at night. A couple, also walking for exercise, paused on the hill to speak with me as well—it was the homeowner who had brought vegetables from her garden to our office. “I hear you have a great garden!” I said. “I’m so sad I missed you in the office.”
“You have to come see it,” she said.
“I will.” She hesitated, waiting for me to walk with her, it seemed.
“I’ll come over there next,” I said, wanting to finish my current conversation with the other homeowner before moving on. The gardener walked on with her boyfriend, and I finished up talking to one homeowner and turned to visit the other side of the subdivision. Then again, a homeowner expressed surprise at seeing me as her sons starting playing basketball in the driveway. I complimented this homeowner, as well, on the beautiful yard she had created—a yard that even included a goldfish pond, though she told me she had accidentally killed all the fish recently. She took us to the back of her house to see the huge swingset her boss had bought her as a gift when she moved into the house. Then we moved on again.
When we came down the hill of the other half of the subdivision, I saw the gardening homeowner and her boyfriend were waiting for us on her front porch. She took us around the side of the house, where I exclaimed over the amazing success she’s had in growing tomatoes, African greens, basil, peppers, and beans in that spot. Then she told us there were three other gardens around the yard as well! She is growing everything from corn to watermelon out there. My husband began teasing her about the pieces of the yard where she had only grass growing, asking her why she hadn’t yet farmed the entire yard.
She insisted that I take some produce. Now, this woman is an extremely, extremely generous soul; it’s a cultural bias, I think partly, but it’s also just in her nature. I didn’t want to take advantage of her, but on the other hand, she had more food than one (or three or four) families could possibly eat. “I tell my neighbors to just come over and get what they want,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if I’m home.” And I knew she meant it. I agreed to take some tomatoes, and I plucked a couple of green ones off a vine. Her boyfriend wandered off and returned with more tomatoes from inside. Then she loaded me up with a huge bag of lettuce and okra as well. And all organically grown, too, thanks to the way she was raised in a distant African nation and the input she got from our local gardening expert this spring.
“What made you come out here right now, tonight?” she finally asked me, after she had brought us into the house to get bags for produce and to get my husband some water.
“I needed to remember why I do this,” I told her. Tears suddenly pricked the inner corners of my eyes. “I needed to remember why I bother.” I didn’t elaborate, but it felt good to tell the truth. I smiled. “I needed to see you, G—,” I said, and meant it. Seeing her standing in the kitchen, the proud owner of an imperfect but peaceful home she might not have ever afforded without my organization, I felt a surge of gratitude for being part of what I do.
Will the relief last? Life is not a simple, short answer much of the time. But it got me through the next day, through my next negative event, when I could close my eyes and remember the peace of the neighborhood—the crickets and tree frogs calling to each other from the pines, the women with the will to garden having the space to do it for the first time in their adult lives. Being part of something bigger than me, something good, and something tangible that I can drive to visit when the going gets rough.
And I was grateful again, tonight, when for dinner we made a salad with some of the greens and tomatoes from my gardening homeowner’s yard. I was grateful for the edible sustenance she provided me in addition to the emotional kind.