It’s 100 degrees in Seattle (and may reach 110 today), so I am kind of loopy and not in the mood for editing. I want to let you know that I’ll be taking the entire month of July off from writing, most meetings, and most social media, so this will be the last NAF post until August 2nd. Except for a couple of speaking engagements, I’ll be spending time with my family, catching up with a few friends, tidying up the house, and melting into the couch with some cold coconut water while playing Earthbound or Final Fantasy III/VI. It’ll be glorious!
I hope that you will find time to rest as well. Let’s face it, our sector sucks at doing this. And because we are self-deprecating, we make light of it all the time, for instance this post “Vacation tips for nonprofit professionals who suck at vacationing,” including, from colleague Cheri Kishimoto, “Set SMART goals that align with your vacation strategic plan to keep you focused on relaxing and sustainable vacationing practices. Take lots of notes and be prepared to do a 10-15-minute presentation to your coworkers on what you learned about relaxing on vacation.”
We can joke all we want, but it’s a serious problem. Many of us are exhausted on a regular basis, and the pandemic has exacerbated our weariness. I read this article “Your ‘Surge Capacity’ is Depleted—It’s Why You Feel Awful” and it really resonates. The author, Tara Haelle, brings up the concept of “ambiguous loss” or “any loss that’s unclear and lacks a resolution.” The pandemic is a serious example of that: We don’t know when it will end, or if it ever will, or how things will be in the coming years.
We’ve also faced so much ambiguous loss socio-politically over the past few years, with the continuous assault on democracy, safety, and sense of stability. We never knew what horrifying things would come from the prior administration, if the cruelty would ever end.
On top of that, the nonprofit sector exists in a constant state of ambiguity. Few funders provide stability, so most of us are hyper-vigilant, always on edge about cash flow, staffing, how long we can keep a program running, when the organization next door will find out that we’ve been stealing their wifi, etc.
This is a lot to deal with all at once, so a lot of us just don’t deal with it. We continue with our work, often engaging in a toxic obsession with productivity. Then we burn out, leave our jobs, move to a small fishing village, befriend the locals, fall in love with a fishmonger, and, after saving his life in a storm, finally win the grudging respect of our future father-in-law. Is that what we want happening all the time?
We all need to do a much better job taking care of ourselves. We’ve been sacrificing our health. And it’s been affecting our work. When we are not at our best, our work suffers. We are not as thoughtful. We don’t think things through as we should. We are not able to generate or synthesize solutions as well. We don’t give one another as much grace. We take fewer risks.
I know that taking a break here and there won’t solve the systemic issues in our sector, which include funding instability; lack of decent pay and benefits for frontline staff; racial and gender wage gaps; and so on. I know we also feel guilty about resting when so many in the world are suffering. But we cannot do our best work if we are not at our best.
So, I hope you will take some time for yourself to do what recharges you, if you can (I know not all of us have the privilege or resources to do so). I don’t want to hear any more martyr-like wailing-with-a-hint-of-bragging from anyone about how they hadn’t taken a vacation in three years or whatever. That’s soooo cliché, and not something to brag about. Being exhausted and not operating at your full potential is not something to be proud of.
And also, it’s unfair to your family and other people who care about you. Our work is so pressing that we often take our friends and family for granted. Advancing a more just and equitable world will take a while, but our time with the people we love is finite. I get asked often what I would tell my younger self if I could go back in time. And I always say—after making jokes about investing in Bitcoin—that I wish I had spent more time with my mother before she died. I had been so busy, and when I stopped to take a breath, she was gone.
On one of my days off years ago, I visited Bruce Lee and Brandon Lee’s graves (they are buried here in Seattle). The quote on Brandon’s tombstone is something that I will always remember. It is from Paul Bowles’s book The Sheltering Sky:
“Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.”
I love my work. It is deeply meaningful. I cannot imagine doing anything else. I feel extremely lucky that I get to do it. I want to do it for as long as I can play a helpful role. And I also know there are only so many more chances to help create these “certain afternoons” of my kids’ childhoods. Maybe I’ll take them on some trips. Maybe I’ll introduce them to Final Fantasy VI, the greatest game ever.
And maybe we’ll watch the next full moon rise. I hope you will too.
See you on August 2nd.