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the cost of pressure

Waikiki beach, February 2016
It's been awhile since I wrote anything here. There are several reasons for that. The primary one is that I spent the first half of the month doing a final edit of my doctoral dissertation before I handed it over to the examiners. Looking carefully at every word, footnote, and punctuation mark, as well as making sure that all 200 pages read like a cohesive whole and not a collection of disjointed ideas, took up most of my hours as well as most of the space in my brain. I surfaced from my office for tea and popcorn and made appearances in classes and meetings, but my mind was always on my dissertation. I submitted it to the thesis office on February 16. Three days later, Dean and I awoke at 4:30 in the morning to fly to Hawaii for a bit of sunshine and rest. It took several days before I was able to relax and enjoy the slower pace of vacation instead of thinking about projects, obligations, and future plans. Rest is a discipline and a skill.

For the past five years, the pressure of a doctoral dissertation has been ever-present in my life, always hanging over my head. Very often this relentless pressure was coupled with feelings of inadequacy because my studies demanded more than I seemed to be able to give. Pressure in itself is not a bad thing, but it is meant to be temporary. Over time, chronic pressure can become so ingrained in our lives that we forget that there was ever another way to live; we can also assume that pressure is an unavoidable part of existence in our world. It is not. Like fear, pressure is meant to propel us to necessary action in unusual and extreme circumstances; it is not meant to become the norm nor is it supposed to rule our lives.

Pressure has not only been present in my academic life, but in my role as a church leader as well. I recently realised that for years I have been living under the pressure to establish and grow a healthy church community by doing all the things that needed to be done: leading, teaching, praying, befriending, hosting, solving problems, listening to people's concerns, and seeking to have a positive influence in our city. Honestly, it is exhausting. Part of that is because our faith community is somewhat under-resourced for the challenges before us (which church group isn't?), but it is also due to the fact that I have not always related to the church in a healthy way. I have taken its small successes or failures to be equal to my personal success or failure. Being so closely tied to another entity's outcomes is called co-dependency. This disorder is evident when we hold ourselves responsible for how other people act or react (or try to control how people act) and it is a burden we are not meant to bear. Jesus calls us to be free, not only from sin but from the pressure to conform to the ideals present in our culture.

Through some help from a spiritual director, insightful readings, and daily prayer exercises, I am seeking to live in more freedom, freedom from the weighty pressure to succeed as an academic and as a church leader. It is hard not to feel a bit lost without the constant push toward spiritual activities and high levels of academic performance, but I know that a high-pressure life is not sustainable. I must find a new way of being and it begins by listening to the Spirit of Jesus instead of to the clamouring demands all around me.

Today I was reminded of Henri Nouwen's assertion that before all else, we must identify ourselves as the beloved of God. Only this can put everything else in perspective. May I become more and more attentive to the loving voice of the Father as I stumble toward freedom on this journey.

When we start being too impressed by the results of our work, we slowly come to the erroneous conviction that life is one large scoreboard where someone is listing the points to measure our worth. And before we are fully aware of it, we have sold our soul to the many grade-givers. That means we are not only in the world, but also of the world. Then we become what the world makes us. We are intelligent because someone gives us a high grade. We are helpful because someone says thanks. We are likable because someone likes us. And we are important because someone considers us indispensable. In short, we are worthwhile because we have successes. And the more we allow our accomplishments — the results of our actions — to become the criteria of our self-esteem, the more we are going to walk on our mental and spiritual toes, never sure if we will be able to live up to the expectations which we created by our last successes. In many people’s lives, there is a nearly diabolic chain in which their anxieties grow according to their successes. - Henri J. M. Nouwen

The great spiritual task facing me is to so fully trust that I belong to God that I can be free in the world--free to speak even when my words are not received; free to act even when my actions are criticized, ridiculed, or considered useless.... I am convinced that I will truly be able to love the world when I fully believe that I am loved far beyond its boundaries.  - Henri J. M. Nouwen


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