Human beings are supposed to have spiritual lives that inspire and maintain us, keep our heads high and hopes glowing. Feeling spiritually empty—stressed, anxious, burnt-out, grieved, numb—has us moving like ghosts through our own lives. Is your faith in yourself and your future worn out? Have prayers gone unanswered? Will your current situation never let up? Does it seem like no effort is worth it? These are symptoms of spiritual emptiness.
A spiritual director or counselor might be able to help you shorten the road to spiritual recovery. But if you’re spiritually burnt out, chances are you can’t afford time or money for counseling. What else can you do?
Burnt Out and Discouraged
I went to my doctor complaining about my stressful job. He said the stress wouldn’t go away until I quit the job. Easy for him to say, I thought. I had dependents and didn’t have that six months’ worth of savings the financial advisers all say we should have just in case. I couldn’t walk away from a job I’d had for 13 years, and was too exhausted to look for another job, write the most persuasive resumé, and find out who to send it to.
Then I heard too that I ought to upgrade my credentials or tech skills before even trying for a new job. This was too much to even consider. My life was overfull and yet I felt empty.
Spiritual emptiness came with health complaints, as it always does: constant colds, digestive problems, headaches, backaches, insomnia. The cure is rest and stress relief. But where is the relief when work, family, and community all seem to depend on you?
Maybe you’re tired because it takes all your energy to explain and justify to yourself why you hate your life but continue on that path just the same. Maybe you hate going home, too, because of problems there. In that state of mind there is no point in having goals because every day is a crisis in itself. Although your spirit is dying, because you show up and function no one else thinks you have a problem.
You Aren’t Alone
A 2012 survey of 1800 employees, quoted in USA Today, showed that 63 percent of them “have high levels of stress at work, with extreme fatigue and feeling out of control,” and 43 percent took sick days because of stress. The numbers have only risen since then.So if you feel like a scrap of ash twirling in the wind, you are not alone, and you are not weaker than everyone else.
Trying to make myself feel better, I reasoned that life is not a rose garden, that other people had problems more serious, that I could not expect to be exempt from suffering. I would tough it out until something good happened. Or, I could think positively: In 15 years I could retire. Or maybe I’d win the lottery or a relative would leave me an inheritance. The chances of that were a billion to one, but I was so desperate that even the most outlandish hope gave me relief.
Finally I got sick and was forced to halt in my tracks and look at my life. Would I force anyone to do what I’d been making myself do?
Please don’t wait until you are sick to address your spiritual emptiness. I’ve seen friends work themselves into the ground only to become seriously ill—with a deep vein thrombosis in the middle of the night, with cancer, a heart attack, or a sudden stroke.
Tiny Steps Toward Spiritual Regeneration
Spiritual emptiness is a genuine emergency. Even so, most of us can’t quit our jobs, or walk out on our families, or go on a two-week beach vacation to revive ourselves.
At or near the dregs of your inner resources, chances are good you can’t expect anyone else to replenish them. The people around you take, and you, saintly person that you are, give and give and give. Can you see where that’s leading?
This list of actions you can try to open yourself up to the tiniest ray of spiritual light might sound weird. They are for relief in your moments of desperation.
- Smile for one minute. At what, nothing? Yes. Smile for the sake of smiling. Smiling is a powerful and scientifically proven anti-depressant. It increases endorphins in your brain just as if you had exercised.
- Get to a place where you can be alone. Burnout happens when we don’t get enough solitude. If you live with a family, even the bathroom might not be private enough. Don’t take a walk; it must be a place where you can sit still. I found escape at a public library. It cost nothing and was quiet.
- Soft items are soothing and consoling. If you have no pets, cuddle with a fuzzy scarf, stuffed animal or soft pillow. During my hardest days, I carried my favorite stuffed animal in a tote bag, and reached in and squeezed it now and then. Sure, I was a grownup and somebody could call me stupid, but it was a shot of comfort in the surrounding chaos, and I’d take comfort any way I could get it. You could do the same with a soft pillow.
- You need silence. Shut off or put away your phone for a while, and keep silent yourself in a place that’s quiet. Shut off the television or radio. You will begin to hear your own thoughts.
- Give up doing work that can be easily undone, like cleaning up the house or the office microwave. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting different results, cleaning house is insane, especially if you are a compulsive cleaner and feel you must have a spotless stovetop. Someone else can come along and undo your work—and cleaning is hard work—in one second. Restrict housecleaning or straightening to one day a week.
- Cancel a commitment. Choose and break an outside commitment that’s an extra effort, or one that will cost money or mileage. You don’t have to give a reason for cancellation. “I’m not available,” is all you have to say. You will be relieved.
- Let someone else be right. Arguments are stressful and nonproductive. The next time an argument or conflict threatens to happen, don’t try to win it. Don’t agree to anything, but don’t argue either. Instead, compliment the person. He or she will be stunned. Sixty-three percent of your co-workers and bosses haven’t heard a compliment in forever. Keep complimenting: “I really appreciate your wonderful frankness.” “There are so many benefits to working here.”
The majority of people around you are tied up with their own spiritual crises. It’d be wonderful if we could turn to each other and talk about it, but sometimes we cannot. It’d also be wonderful if someone rescued you, left you a fortune, or spoke a quotation that reignited your spirit and gave you strength. When those are not forthcoming, restoring yourself, bringing yourself back from the edge of desperation, is up to you.