The Undervalued Glory of Sabbatical
I've debated for a while about whether or not to write this. It's not totally related to writing and it really doesn't even relate to my books. But this topic is weighing heavily on my heart, and the more commentary I see, the more I feel the need to speak.
There has been a lot of discussion about a certain Olympian and decisions which were made. If that alone tells you who and what I'm referring to, great. If you're stumped, that's all right. I'm not going to give the details because frankly the actual event that is being discussed is not the issue. The real issue is the way people have responded to it.
As a member of the Millennial Generation, I see a lot of talk from Boomers, Gen X, and a bit from the Greatest Generation about how we're destroying all things good that ever happened. For the most part, I choose to be the type of millennial who rolls my eyes and moves on with my day, because quite frankly I have better things to do than defend changes in parenting styles, societal norms, economic decisions, climate decisions, etc. etc. But if I might dish out a little criticism myself, it seems to me that previous generations (and I will give the codicil that this applies mostly to those who are loud online) have a really hard time accepting changes from what they are used to. Here's something that you should already know, but if you've forgotten here's a reminder: not a single one of us is perfect. I don't care which generational group you belong to. You and your peers did not do and are not doing everything perfectly. Change is necessary to growth.
Now, why does that matter? Because in relation to the above events I'm seeing an alarming amount of argument about whether or not someone ought to step away from situations which are challenging. I've seen everything from secular reasoning to Christian reasoning and the common thread seems to be that worth is tied directly to how hard you push yourself.
From a secular standpoint, that is clearly a splinter from a capitalistic worldview. It's the philosophy that keeps older people in jobs where they are being taken advantage of without compensation for additional duties and responsibilities they are simply expected to take on without complaint. And they often don't even think to ask for compensation in form of bonuses, raises, or promotions because this is how they view the order of the workplace. It's no wonder many suffer from high blood pressure, heart disease, and other stress related disorders. They are working themselves to the literal breaking point. And unfortunately, many companies encourage this. Meanwhile, younger generations who place greater value on mental health and self awareness are labeled as “soft”, “weak”, “selfish”, etc. when they ask how they are being compensated for additional duties they are asked to fulfill.
I think in these instances a balance is necessary. There will be times when a company may need additional work from its employees, and perhaps it shouldn't be compensated in a monetary way. However, if a worker is expected to take on a much heavier workload, the company ought to determine how that will be rewarded. And no, simply staying employed is not a reasonable “reward” for doing more work than what was hired for.
However, the secular side of this doesn't worry me as much as the Christian commentary I've seen. And that is what I most want to address. There seems to be a prevailing attitude that the only way to bring glory to God is by pushing yourself to the point of breaking either physically or mentally, and sometimes both. It seems to me that there is a disconnect between the doctrine of a loving Father in Heaven and the expectations of a society where only the highest performance is praiseworthy.
So, this is where I'm going to get personal and vulnerable, which is not a comfortable place to be. I'm going to share feelings which I honestly haven't shared with anyone, including Prince Charming, though he certainly knows most of them.
Early last spring (2020) I became pregnant with our fifth child. I wouldn't say that I was sick per se, but I will say that never in my life have I been so physically and mentally exhausted. There were days when if I managed to shower and get changed into clean clothes, I'd had a highly successful day. My mind was so foggy, I didn't even attempt to write for a few months. And the longer I went without writing, the more anxious I became. I had fans who wanted the story I had been working on. I knew my sales would suffer the longer I went without a release. My business would come to a standstill and everything I had worked for would go to waste. At least, that's what my inner commentary told me. So as soon as I started feeling even remotely human, I threw myself back into my writing. I went into “push through it” mode.
And I was miserable.
Don't get me wrong, Where the Heart Is is still one of the stories I am most proud of. I still love the characters, and I love the storyline. I will forever appreciate the dear readers who encouraged and supported me. And if I could go back, I would still choose to push through and finish that story when I did. But as soon as it was finished, I started feeling a second wave of exhaustion. Despite getting started on another story which I'd hoped to have ready for just after the holidays, I didn't get far. I just couldn't. My daughter was born, and the exhaustion only continued. I couldn't focus on my writing. I couldn't bring myself to spend time at my computer for longer than short spurts. And when I tried to push through, because that's why I thought was expected of me, I was miserable. I would sit as I took a break to nurse my daughter and I would cry. I would cry about the work I hadn't gotten done. I would cry about the readers I was disappointing. I would cry about how unproductive and lazy I felt.
One day while I was crying, close to Christmastime, I had a bit of a revelation. Not a single reader had complained that I hadn't put out more books. Not a single reader had chastised me for not working harder. In fact, quite the opposite was happening. My blessed readers, who are more of a lifeline than they will ever know, had been entirely supportive. They loved all over the pictures I shared of my infant daughter. They showered me with love when I admitted that getting back into my groove was going slower than I hoped.
My readers didn't expect me to be a superhuman, constant productivity machine. They wanted me to be a happy, successful, but mostly HAPPY writer. They wanted me to enjoy my children and the precious early days with my daughter. Did they want more books? I'm sure they did. But that wasn't what kept them in my reader group. Their love for me as a person, as an individual with worth, kept them in the group.
I recognized that the pressure I had been putting on myself was killing me. It was killing my creativity and my drive. It was sucking all the joy out of the process which I normally love. In making that realization, I made a conscious choice to step back and slow down.
Being an author for me isn't completely about bringing glory to God, though I hope and pray that He is pleased with my efforts and my choices to tell uplifting and inspiring stories. But I have come to understand that I can't glorify Him (in my work or my life in general) when I push myself to a point of physical, mental, and emotional breaking. I know some might be thinking of the verse, “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” (Phillipians 4:13 KJV). It is worth noting that it does not say “today.” It also does not say “every day.” Faith in Christ certainly gives me the strength to do all things, but not all at the same time. It is also worth noting that in the very first book of scriptures, God instituted the Sabbath. A day for man to rest from his labors. A day which He Himself, a glorified, all powerful, all knowing Being, used to rest from His labors. I cannot believe that God is only pleased with us when we push ourselves to the breaking point. As a parent, I do not take any glory in my children's pain. I recognize that sometimes pain is necessary for growth, but I am more pleased when they accomplish something in a way that they are proud of. When they push through challenges to succeed, I'm proud. When they recognize a need to step back and reevaaluate, I am just as proud. It takes a great deal of courage to admit you need time to reset in a world where high performance is overvalued.
The word sabbatical is derived from the word sabbath. In religious terms, the Sabbath is a day for worship and rest from our labors. A sabbatical is often used in the workplace and has much the same meaning. It means to step away, sometimes for additional education or training, and rest from your labors. While most often the workplace uses this word in terms of a year or more, I think it can apply to any length of time we need to regroup.
When you are in a place of challenge, whether that challenge is physical, mental, emotional, or situational, there is glory to be found in pushing through it when that is the right choice for you. However, I firmly believe that there is glory also in saying, “Not today, or right now.” Taking a sabbatical to reevaluate your direction, to commune with God (if that is your choice), to allow your mind and body time to recuperate from whatever is troubling you is a worthy choice. Too often I see people push themselves into harm because they fear being idle. I am not a fan of being idle myself. But there is something to be said for taking rest from the pressures you face.
Returning to my personal example, I have taken the majority of this year off from writing. I've not made a big deal of that. Instead, I have focused on getting my office put together (and yes, readers, I promise there will be a slew of updates coming soon because there is so much progress to share with you). I have focused my energy on enjoying my precious children. I have started mentoring other authors in my reader group through monthly live chats while continuing my weekly Friday updates. I have made plans, considered where I am and where I want and need to go, and restructured those plans.
Am I being a productivity machine? No, far from it. I am, however, just now getting back into a regular writing routine, though I am being careful to pay attention to how I am feeling. I am rebuilding the habits which had been so easy just a few years ago. Do I think God is pleased with the directions I have chosen this year? Yes, I think so. I believe He is proud of me, not only for making sure that my family continued to be my top priority, but also for taking the time to allow my emotional and mental health to recuperate. I am still fighting frequent battles with anxiety over not having the projects done that I had hoped. But I am learning to breathe and refocus, rather than force myself into a schedule which is going to break me all over again.
Why? Because honestly, readers, I'm scared. I'm terrified that if I break again, I won't be able to get myself back together. If I push myself to the point that I can't even function in front of a computer, which is exactly where I was at the beginning of this year, I don't know that I will be able to come back from that. I'm not sure that I would even want to come back from that. It was scary enough the first time. I don't ever want to go back to that feeling of hopelessness and pressure while doing something that I have genuinely loved. I also don't think I'll continue to be as slow as I am right now. With time, I'll be able to get back into faster writing pace. But I'm taking it one day at a time, one project at a time.
All of us should keep in mind that one person's choice in any given situation might not be the choice another would make in the same spot. Where I have chosen to back away and reset, someone else might decide to push through and “fake it till they make it.” And for someone else, that might be the best choice. I just know that for myself, it wasn't the right choice at all.
When we jump on the “judging others” train, we forget that we are all people just doing the best we can with the circumstances we've been given. When we say, “Well I would have...” we deny the other person their choice to follow what they believe is best for them. When we always push and push and push, we deny ourselves the glory and blessings of a Sabbath or sabbatical. I don't think our day of rest only has to be Sunday, or whichever day you worship. A sabbatical is a beautiful, and too often underutilized, tool. A sabbatical can, and should, be the time-frame you need to refocus, regroup, and get back into doing the thing you most love.
The good news, readers, is despite all the conversation happening and the comments which I have seen in dozens of areas, I'm at peace with the decisions I've made. It can be hard to see others criticize choices similar to my own. But I truly feel peace. I hope that whatever decisions you make when faced with a challenge have brought and continue to bring you peace. If you've chosen to push through, I wish you all the best and that you will have the strength you need to continue up that Hill. If you have chosen to stop for a time, I wish you all the peace and inspiration you need to determine your next step in your journey. Let's strive to be a little gentler, a little kinder, and a little more understanding. We're all just people. We're going to make mistakes, and we're going to make differing choices. That's okay. That's what makes us unique and special.