You can tell Americans have faith by the way they drive.
I don’t know about that. I’ve never found Americans to be better or worse drivers than anywhere else I’ve been. But it is an interesting saying. What is the relationship between faith and responsibility? Many people live by the mantra,
Believe as if everything depends on God, but live as if everything depends on you.
For a faith based person, this is part of the antidote to feeling overwhelmed. It encourages rigorous personal responsibility balanced with a sense that life is ultimately in the hands of a force higher than yourself. It’s a helpful mantra, even if you’re not faith based.
Even from an evolutionary, or natural, perspective, it makes sense. Here it is again with a different spin,
Trust that life has larger purposes and timing beyond your understanding, but live as if your actions matter.
How does this relate to feeling overwhelmed? It’s the balance between responsibility and equanimity (or acceptance). You absolutely co create the future as it emerges AND you surrender the parts of life that are out of your control, such as outcomes and other peoples’ actions. So far in this series, I have outlined 10 ways to know if you are becoming overwhelmed, and 10 practical ways to overcome overwhelm. In the third piece and in more depth in this piece, I am exploring the connection between empathy and overwhelm.
This broader perspective holds responsibility and acceptance in balance. In the words of American philosopher Ken Wilber, pain “hurts more but bothers you less.” It’s a challenging distinction because there is no absolute answer as to when to hold on and when to let go, when to move and when to wait. You just hold the space for the tension between the two and lean on your inner wisdom to guide you.
In practical terms, I understand it to mean that you feel pain so deeply that it might as well be taking place in your own body or mind. AND you don’t rush to remove it (even if you could) because you don’t know the big picture as to whether there is some greater purpose to the pain. In effect, you let go of the outcome. But of course empathy is powerful and people can feel when you feel their pain. It helps. It doesn’t necessarily make the pain go away, but it helps enormously.
This perspective keeps you right, smack in the middle of change and pain- you are intimately involved and active but not burdened by having to solve the problem or remove the pain. This is ultimately a way to avoid burnout and overwhelm. (Read on for more about feeling pain without letting it destroy you)
The saying from Wilber is especially meaningful to me because it grew out of his personal tragedy, losing his wife Treya to a long battle with illness. I read about their experience in the powerful book, Grace and Grit. In the book, Wilber says this,
Grace and grit summarizes Treya’s entire life. Being and doing. Equanimity and passion. Surrender and will. Total acceptance and fierce determination. Those two sides of her soul, the two sides she wrestled with all her life, the two sides that she had finally brought together into one harmonious whole.
I suspect that I resonate so deeply with the book because of my own experience. I have had times in my life where I felt like I was fighting for survival and surrendering the outcome was all that I could do. Whenever I come close to rock bottom, when I hit the wall and crumble in the face of overwhelming anxiety, surrender becomes inevitable.
I stopped believing in an interventionist God during one of these low times because it seemed so passive and implausible in the light of my predicament. At the same time I grew to trust implicitly and intuitively that everything happens exactly as it needs to happen, and right on time too. I surrender to this perspective on a daily basis, and a word like God is not out of place as a way to describe this surrender to a larger purpose than I can ever fully comprehend. Other western names for this experience include Higher Power, Ground of Being, God within and many others. With or without a name, I know that I couldn’t function for long without the experience. Without it, I would spend my days hitting up against the wall of overwhelm, with no recourse beyond my own wits, which are incredibly limited.
Personally, I feel no need to defend or deny any religion based on the existence of God. I do think it’s important, however, that each person finds their own path of surrender in the face of the mostly mysterious, and constantly changing forward motion of life. Most arguments for atheism don’t even touch on the experience of surrender that I’m speaking about here.
I encourage everyone, theist or atheist, faith based or not, to build into your life a healthy sense of surrender. It is more rejuvenative than a vacation, and costs far less too. When held in balance with personal responsibility and strong willed activism, it is by far the most potent protection against burn out and overwhelm.
One final comment- the reason so many people look to nature to recharge their batteries is because nature exudes the balance between action and surrender. I will end this series on overwhelm with the powerful quote from Wendell Berry that I know literally by heart,
When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.