Monday, May 26, 2008

Memorial Day 2008

In the last two years (2006 and 2007), I have been posting some numbers for Memorial Day, and wish today to continue in that tradition.

Number killed on 9/11: 2993 (same as listed last year). Wikipedia breaks this number down as follows:

"There were 2,974 fatalities, excluding the 19 hijackers: 246 on the four planes (from which there were no survivors), 2,603 in New York City in the towers and on the ground, and 125 at the Pentagon. An additional 24 people remain listed as missing. All of the fatalities in the attacks were civilians except for 55 military personnel killed at the Pentagon. More than 90 countries lost citizens in the attacks on the World Trade Center." (Source:

Number of U.S. killed as a result of U.S. military activities since 9/11: 4758 (up from 3455 as of this time last year)
507 U.S. military killed in Afghanistan (
up from 390 as of last year),
4082 U.S. military killed in War on Iraq (up from 2844 as of last year),
at least 169 U.S. civilians (contractors) killed in Iraq (source for last year's summary number of 398 not available, but I found this number of U.S. contractors from


Number of Iraqi civilians killed since War on Iraq began: 84,050-91,713 (up from 64,400-70,540 reported last year).
(These figures are critiqued by many as being low estimates. See the Iraqi body count webpage, linked below.)


If you find figures that you believe are more accurate than the ones here, please let me know in "comments," and please cite your sources.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Lessons from Burnout

Today I thought I would sum up what I have learned from burnout.

What burnout is: It's not just exhaustion, but exhaustion coupled with a sense of failure, or some sense that, after all of that effort, little was successfully accomplished in relation to the costs to your own well-being and maybe the well-being of those close to you as well.

It is important to note that the actual failure (or lack of success) might not be real. But to the person experiencing burnout, it seems real. The perception of failure may be biased by one or more of the following: (a) one's own habit of low self-esteem; (b) others who have been helped may not have expressed their appreciation out loud; (c) what failed was relatively minor in relation to accompanying successes, but the failure got a lot of attention and the successes got very little attention.

At any rate, this analysis of the experiences that contribute to burnout also gives clues as to how to heal from it.

1. Rest and time are important. While easy to say, this can be hard to accomplish. Life may not automatically let up for the burned out person, giving them time to rest. Hence...

2. The burned out person needs to find a way to scale back in order to create the right kind of time and space in which to rest. This can be hard -- it may require retraining bad habits of overcommitment. Ironically enough, the sense of failure can be useful. To understand why, see next...

3. The burned out person needs to process the sense of failure very carefully, avoiding the danger of denial on the one hand (pretending it never happened) and the danger of negative self-flagellation on the other hand (overexaggerating its importance). Is the failure real? How significant is it really, in proportion to related successes? Does it signify the importance of doing things differently next time, or does it signify that this is a kind of challenge that you need to let go of, and hand over to others? There are times when what we can learn from failure is "who we are not," and in truth, this can be quite liberating! I have found that saying, "No, I can't do that because, to be honest, I'm just not very good at it," with confidence and maybe even humor is far more effective than any other way of saying "no" I have ever tried! When I try more apologetic ways of saying "no," people have a hard time taking me seriously and keep asking me over and over again. But when I say, in a confident instead of pathetic way, "I'm really not very good at that," people do back down! So processing failures well, learning from them, and simplifying one's life accordingly, is a very important part of healing from burnout! It is a process in which you eventually forgive yourself, liberate yourself from future related disappointment, and can then move on toward a more positive future, with your life focused more effectively on what you really are good at and successful in. This leads to...

4. You need to have some positive, confidence-building experiences. These are not always easy to plan or manufacture, of course. But they also do not just "happen." You need to know yourself well enough to be alert for the right kinds of opportunities, and assertive enough to take them when they come.

5. You also need to pay attention to building a good support system. The tendency in burnout is to withdraw, and some withdrawal may be an important part of the healing process. But you have to be careful not to withdraw too much. Stay in touch with good supportive friends. Tell them you need their patience and support. Don't be afraid to seek professional help. And gradually work to nurture new positive relationships. It's okay during such a time to avoid trying or difficult relationships as much as possible and focus on the positive relationships as much as you can, because this is an important part of your healing. If troubled relationships need attention, you are better off waiting until you feel stronger before pouring a lot of attention into healing them.

So, in sum: simplify your life, rest, be patient with yourself, give yourself time, process your sense of failure without dwelling on it unhealthily, seek out positive, confidence-building experiences, and bolster your support system.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Coming Out of the Cocoon

I feel like lately I've been all wrapped up in a cocoon, but now I'm finally coming out. I feel all raw and bedraggled, but new. The warm spring air feels good. My wings are still damp and all folded up, but starting to open up and come to life. I'm not claiming to have turned into some spectacularly beautiful butterfly -- more like a drab, ho-hum moth -- but hey, having wings now is pretty cool! I look forward to seeing what flying is like. I'm excited about what it will be like to establish a whole new relationship with earth and sky. Already, I find myself perceiving the world in a whole new way: three-dimensionally instead of just two-dimensionally. A new life opens up before me.

This is what life can be like. Sometimes we have to curl up in a cocoon for a while as a prelude to a new transformation. The cocoon offers protection. It also hides from view the messiness of dramatic transformation. And the confinement of the cocoon prepares the being inside to desire and appreciate the much-expanded freedom that its completed transformation will bring.

This is what my life has been like. After years of steadily increasing intensity, by the end of last year, I was seriously burned out -- so much so that I didn't even realize it. Instead, I was dimly aware of the kind of depression that severe burnout brings, without fully understanding its cause.

So I curled up and withdrew as much as I could without letting go of all that I absolutely needed to do to keep my life and work moving along. I didn't realize that what I was doing was closing myself up in a cocoon. I had no idea that there would be a time when suddenly I would emerge and find myself transformed. I just instinctively needed peace and protection, time to heal and time to transform.

I don't really know what's next. I'm just happy to see the sun, and amazed to notice that I have wings now.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Another Year!

We are finishing up another year! It's amazing how quickly an academic year can spin by! You're busy and busy and busy, and then all of a sudden, it's over! Just like that. You look around, dazed, watching the dust settle, and ask, "what just happened?"

And then you start to remember who you really are.

But things are not quite totally over yet. I did get my grades in, and that's a big moment. The pace changes rather suddenly after that, because life is no longer so intensely deadline-driven. There are still deadlines and meetings, but they all become more widely spaced.

The big change will be after graduation. This weekend will be busy with all of the graduation-related events, and then Commencement itself. At a small college, we are expected to participate in all of this, and it is good to do so. The students really do appreciate it. They get all sentimental about everything, and it's nice to catch these glimpses of just what this has all meant to them.

I am feeling especially close to this year's graduating class. There are a lot of students I'm really going to miss.

My classes ended very well, and I enjoyed reading all of my students' final papers.

I'm really looking forward to the summer. I'm very ready to get back to my research and writing again. I'm going to two conferences this summer, and the Boxwood Wooden Flute Festival again (as I've done and written about in the past).

And I've had some important breakthroughs that I'll try to write about soon.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Catching Up

Wow, I actually skipped the whole month of April! I don't think I've ever missed a whole month of posting before. Sorry about that!

Here is a short run-down of the news:

1. I've been trying to adjust to the realization that I have to continue as chair for two more years. Given this information, it is impossible to continue doing all that I have been doing. There were some things that I took on because I thought this was my last year as chair and so I thought that some new time would open up for me starting next year. So now I have had to re-evaluate what to continue with. I have tried to include others in this conversation, to help me discern. I came up with what I thought were very good ideas about how to keep going with the most important things that I uniquely could offer (and that I felt called to offer), but the powers that be would have none of it, unfortunately. I finally summon my energies to assert myself, my needs, and my priorities, but the world does not budge one inch. Feeling defeated, I am now having to let go of some things that I have put a lot of time and energy into in recent years. The other people who have been involved are disappointed. This has been hard.

2. (Related?) I came down with a bad case of strep throat in early April. Then it came back! I've now finished a second and quite powerful course of antibiotics and am glad to be off of that and feeling better!

3. (Related) I have renewed my vows to take better care of myself. Now that the weather is getting nicer, I'm going to reinstate an exercise plan. Phase 1 will be the modest (but highly effective) 30 minutes/30 days walking plan. It's very simple. Walk at least 30 minutes for 30 days in a row. That's long enough to establish this as a habit and build a base of fitness from which I can then start running again if I wish. Or I can just continue this much for the rest of my life and still be much better off than I have been lately! The "rules" I'm establishing around this are: (1) I am not allowed to try to run before these first 30 days (because I don't want to pressure myself or burn myself out with over-enthusiasm), and (2) I can walk longer than 30 minutes if I ever should wish so, but I still have to keep going out every day no matter what for at least 30 minutes.

4. I've recently come to terms with how severely burned out I was after the ridiculous busyness of last year. This year has been much more manageable, and slowly I've been healing from the burnout. Burnout is not only exhaustion from working too hard for too long, but also includes a sense of discouragement (some sense that all of that effort had not really been worth the cost). The more manageable load this year has helped me recover from the exhaustion component; the psychological component has been more challenging. It requires careful analysis of the causes of the sense of discouragement. In my complex life, this is complex work. There's no easily identifiable single element. But I've been making real progress and am starting to feel a real sense of hope that, even with continuing as chair for two more years, I can still bring my life closer to how I want it to be.

5. Related: A lot of the work I've been doing this year has been to shift from an essentially apologetic orientation to the world ("I'm sorry for taking up space on this planet. To make up for this, let me do something Spectacularly Good to justify my existence") to something so different I don't yet have a name or phrase to describe it. My long habit of living apologetically and orienting myself to (thinking that I could be) making everyone else around me happy ended up trapping me within a huge set of obligations and responsibilities that began to be too much for me, leaving me with two daunting tasks: (1) find a responsible way out of this tangled web, and (2) learn to live in a new way that would prevent this from happening again. I have been making my way out of the tangled web, one strand at a time. And I have have mostly succeeded in not adding new strands to the web. And I am slowly creating new habits of setting my own agenda and taking better care of myself.

6. I do need to come up for a name for the new way of being I am trying to establish for myself. It involves setting my own agenda, and taking better care of myself, and this kind of shift initially feels like a shift to a more selfish way of being, but that's not really it at all. All along, what has been centrally important to me is what I think of as "trying to discern what God calls me to do."

All along, the discernment process has included both looking within and looking outside of myself for clues and guidance. What do I like doing? What I am good at? What gives me joy? What is easy? What is hard but feels like an exciting challenge? What feels like it goes against my nature in potentially harmful ways? What do the people I trust ask for from me? What needs in the world do I feel most drawn towards addressing? What builds me up? What brings me down? What do people appreciate about me? What do I most value about myself?

But I had been giving priority to responding to what others want from me, lately in life. Now I am shifting priority to the more inward modes of discernment. The people around me may like me and appreciate me, and may want things from me that I am glad to offer, but they still don't know me as well as I know myself, and their caring for me is limited and somewhat conditioned just because there are limits to what any person can know about another.

Ultimately, I have a kind of responsibility for and to myself that no other person can do for me, no matter how much they care. And I owe it to others (as well as myself) to take this responsibility seriously, so that I can be the best person I can be. It is up to me to do this, precisely because no one else can do this for me. This is why it looks selfish but actually is not.

I know I have been working on this sort of thing for a long time, and maybe keep repeating it here in this blog, but this is, I think, a hard point for some people (such as myself) to "get." Maybe it's harder for women than for men, because women are acculturated to value and exemplify a certain model of "unselfishness." I certainly don't want to abandon unselfishness altogether. But there's a difference between a self-sacrificial unselfishness, and a non-self-sacrificial version of unselfishness. The latter is what I have been trying to find.