Friday, April 25, 2008

Overload Syndrome

God is truly looking out for me. My church's library is fairly small, and yet when I was feeling frazzled a couple of weeks ago and hoped they might have a book that would help, I found two about dealing with overload.

The first is called The Overload Syndrome: Learning to Live Within Your Limits by Richard A. Swenson, M.D. I think Swenson is my long-lost twin brother, because this man sounds exactly like me. Except for being a successful doctor and actually managing to publish a book. But on this overload thing, we're right in tune.

Swenson starts off talking about his own brush with overload and what he did to change things. He goes on to say this kind of busyness is a fairly recent phenomenon, peculiar to western culture (particularly American) in this day and age. I had wondered about that. How, I wondered, could I feel so stressed and overburdened all the time when, frankly, my parents worked a lot harder than I do? And when I don't even have children?

Swenson was quick to explain. Change in society, in the way things are done, came about fairly slowly for hundreds of years. Then suddenly, things started changing at a head-spinning rate. I know this is true. My father tells me stories of how they lived in his childhood on a farm in Florida, plowing with a mule and picking cotton by hand. It's probably not all that different from the 1800s. But how things have changed since then!

You would think all this progress would make things easier for us, and in some ways, it does. But there's a downside, says Swenson. We've been taught to constantly want more and more, faster and faster. We push the envelope. We push our limits as far as debt and time and energy, until we're way beyond them.

Swenson goes on to talk about the concept of margin--a wonderful idea that means you allow some breathing room between your load and your limits. But he says we've been conditioned to think we're being lazy or doing something wrong if our schedules aren't full up with good things. Swenson has a totally different take on it. According to him, if we have overloaded our schedules with our plans, God may not be happy about it.

"Margin allows availability for the purposes of God," says Swenson. "When God taps us on the shoulder and asks us to do something, He doesn't expect to get a busy signal." (p. 18)

Swenson quotes a theologian named Henri Nouwen. "In the spiritual life, the word discipline means 'the effort to create some space in which God can act...." Discipline means to create that space in which something can happen that you hadn't planned or counted on." (p. 18)

Wow! That's completely different from my idea of discipline--that every moment must be productive, accomplishing something I had planned. And what's one of the symptoms of not leaving that margin in our lives? According to Swenson, we start to resent friends or loved ones when they need us, when they interrupt our plans and ask us for help.

The man just described my life!

I'll probably tell you more about this wonderful book as I read on. For now, though, it's a tremendous help to realize that I'm not alone and that it's okay to admit I have limits. That maybe, just maybe, God hasn't wanted me to be pushing so hard, anyway.