I had an email conversation the other day that made me want to drop everything and take a sympathy nap. Every sentence oozed discouragement as my formerly energetic friend described how tired she is, how she has to drag herself through each day, how void she is of enthusiasm and vision.
Her words shot me back several years to a season when I felt much like she is feeling now. I didn’t have near the full plate that my friend carries, but as I’ve shared here and here, I know very well what it’s like to trudge around all day in a state of perpetual overwhelmedness.
I’m not talking about being a bit too busy or somewhat over-committed. No, this has to do with the kind of mind-numbing fatigue that stems from circumstantial, hormonal, relational or physical factors that often are beyond our control.
As I read my friend’s email, I thought of the little phrase that guided how I used my time and energy during my own tired years:
“Only do what only I can do.”
Contrary to what I may think, I am not indispensable. And during seasons of acute exhaustion or stress, if there are others who can do work that I’m struggling to do, I need to step aside and let them.
Here’s a case in point. I used to work in the children’s ministry at my church, teaching a class of fifth and sixth graders once a month. There were some great kids in this class, including my own daughter, but because of my depleted state, I often found my patience wearing thin and my irritability level rising as I tried to get them to focus.
When I actually began to dread going to church on those Sundays when I had to teach, I started to wonder if it might be time for a change. The turning point came when I realized that I would not want someone with my attitude teaching my own daughters, so maybe it was time to move on to something else.
The children’s pastor graciously let me off the hook, and I relinquished my teacher title knowing that there were other people who could oversee the class, probably much better than I could. My little motto gave me the freedom to let go and find ways to serve that better matched my gifts and personality.
That wasn’t the only thing I dropped or said “no” to during those years. I turned down leadership opportunities. I didn’t sign up to be a room parent at my daughters’ school (though I did make treats for class parties). I didn’t volunteer for much of anything, really.
I felt selfish and guilty at times. I wondered if people were disappointed in me, and maybe they were. But during this exhausted season of my life, when my neck tightened easily and I sometimes found it hard to breathe, I had to put my own oxygen mask on first before I could help anyone else.
So I only did what only I could do.
For me, this mostly included taking care of my home and family. Beyond my normal household duties, I focused on what I thought was important, even if it tuckered me out. For example, when Lilly was in fourth and fifth grade, she wanted me to come for lunch at her school once a week. The cafeteria was noisy and the kids were rambunctious—not the best environment for an overwhelmed mom—but I went because I sensed she needed me.
I’m not suggesting that weary people should never participate in activities or ministries that take them out of their so-called “comfort zones” or don’t seem to fit their obvious skill sets. Sometimes when the call for “all hands on deck” goes out, it is our moral or spiritual obligation to answer it, no matter how fatigued we are.
Also, the practice of only doing what only you can do isn’t necessarily a permanent decision-making strategy. You might be worn out now, but you probably won’t be worn out forever. Seasons change, energy levels go back up, enthusiasm returns. It might require medical intervention from time to time, but it does happen.
For awhile, I had so much margin in my life there was hardly room for anything else. But as I started to feel more like my normal self, I began adding things back in—but only very strategically.
Today, I volunteer at the elementary school—helping kids with writing, but still not planning parties. I now have lunch with younger daughter Molly every week—because she’ll be in middle school next year and I won’t be able to then. I help organize special events for the women’s ministry at church—because not everyone enjoys this sort of work but I thoroughly enjoy it.
I do other things, too, but I haven’t forgotten what those tired days were like. Which is why I shared my experiences with my friend, along with these final thoughts that I hope might encourage others who are slogging through their own weary seasons.
I’m sorry you are in this tough place of never-ending butt-dragging, my friend. I know words from me won’t change much, but I do understand, and I would hug you if I could. You are making a difference, even if you see no tangible proof right now. So hang in there. It won’t always be like this.
And if it gets worse before it gets better, as it sometimes does, take a tip from your white-space loving friend and only do what only you can do.
It’s hard to let go, but it’s worth it.
P.S. Linking up this week with Suzie Eller at #LiveFreeThursday.