By Rev. J.C. Austin
Exhaustion is the new busy. Before the pandemic, “busy” had become the standard definition of most of our lives, so much so that people were regularly writing books and articles on the culture and cult of busyness pervading U.S. society. The standard reply to the polite greeting, “How are you?” had become, “Ugh, I’m so busy.”
Teenagers overwhelmed by the mountains of schoolwork and extracurricular activities they were scaling to try and get into the college of their choice. Parents overwhelmed by juggling career advancement with household management and raising busy kids, sometimes with caring for aging parents on top of all that. Even retirees, deeply engaged in volunteer work and adult learning and caring for grandchildren and long-delayed travel and household projects would regularly say to me, “I’m busier now than when I was working!”
“Ugh, I’m so busy.” It was partly lamentation and partly bragging, because busyness had effectively become a status symbol: if you were busy, you were important, successful, in-demand, and above all, productive. I think that’s why, early in the quarantine period of the pandemic, there was so much activity and energy around remaining productive or even expanding productivity while staying at home.
Those who found themselves with more free time on their hands than usual began looking for new ways to become productive: baking bread, playing an instrument, learning a language. A viral tweet in early April by a C-list digital marketing and productivity guru represented the apex of that approach by saying, “if you don’t come out of this quarantine with a either a new skill, starting what you’ve been putting off (like a new business), or more knowledge, you didn’t ever lack the time, you lacked the discipline.”
And that tweet actually helped to burst the bubble of extreme quarantine productivity, I think, because it drew a significant round of online protest and even outrage. That’s because for many, many people, quarantine has not been a time of increased leisure in which they were looking for something meaningful to do or have somehow lacked discipline for not doing it. Rather, it has been a time of unprecedented stress and anxiety and, yes, busyness. Many people have lost their jobs and therefore their healthcare coverage right when they might need that the most, and finding new employment has been exceedingly difficult. So while they might have more time, it has certainly not been a time of leisure.
For those who have kept their jobs, it has been a time of added stress. People are fearful of losing their jobs, and so the existing social Darwinism of many offices has gotten even more intense with people working remotely. And even when that is not a primary concern, an entire workforce that had always been in an office is now working from home, and when that happened, the last tentative boundaries between work and home life quickly began to disappear.
It has been particularly hard on parents of younger children who had to manage all of that while simultaneously becoming homeschool monitors or actual teachers or even just full-time childcare givers while also having a more than full-time job. But for all of us, even the things that seemed utterly mundane before the pandemic have now become stressful occasions that require a careful weighing of risk vs. need: going to the grocery store; pumping gas into your car, getting your hair cut.
And, if anything, that stress and the accompanying exhaustion from it is increasing rather than decreasing as time goes on. Part of that is because of the cumulative nature of all this as we find ourselves in the fourth month of the pandemic. Part of it is the sense that we have a long and uncertain road ahead of us before the pandemic is over. What has been added to that, though, is the needless and sometimes baffling politicization of the pandemic, exemplified by issue of wearing masks in public.
There is a clear scientific consensus at this point that wearing masks in public until a vaccine or treatment is found will significantly reduce the spread of the virus, saving thousands and thousands of lives in the process. The only actual downside of doing so for the overwhelming majority of people is that it’s annoying and/or somewhat uncomfortable at times.
And yet there are people who not only reject the basic decency of caring for their neighbors by wearing a mask, but attempt to shame and harass those who do wear them, and even threaten physical violence when they themselves are requested to wear one. So now those trips out of your house are even more stressful and exhausting, since who knows if you’ll run into such people.
But while the politicization of something that should be such a straightforward consensus is a reflection of the extreme polarization of our society these days, it is also another product of exhaustion. People are exhausted by the pandemic, exhausted by the anxiety and stress it has created, exhausted by the limitations that it has put on them, especially if they live in places that have been spared the brunt of the virus so far. An explanation is not the same as a justification, but at least a partial explanation of the rejection of masks and social distancing is that people are fed up with still living this way, of being unable to exercise the control over their lives to which they feel entitled.
And, in a much more profound and justified sense, that is part of what is driving the wave of protests against systemic racism in general and police violence against Black people. Black people are saying they are fed up with still living this way after enduring not four months of quarantine, but 400 years of systemic racial violence and oppression.
They are fed up with being unable to exercise sufficient control over their lives to keep from suffering, on a daily basis, race-based indignities and disadvantages and exclusion and harassment and violence and murder. They are exhausted by white people who are not fed up enough with that reality themselves, who want to dictate the terms by which Black people are allowed to raise their grievances against systemic racism, who want to deny that these oppressive systems that define and unjustly limit so much of their lives even exist.
And they are exhausted by white people who may be well-intentioned but who are asking them over and over again to teach them how to understand racism and be an ally instead of doing that work for themselves, for it is not as if there is a shortage of evidence or information. And well-intentioned white people who are trying to do that work for themselves are also exhausted in a different way: overwhelmed by the magnitude of things we have never recognized or understood before, by the challenge of admitting we recognized more than we allowed ourselves to act on, by the struggle within ourselves not to give in to the temptations of defensiveness or false equivalences or denial or resignation.
Yes, exhaustion is the new busy, but not all exhaustion is created equal. Being exhausted by having to stay home in your comfortable house is not the same thing as having to stay home when you’re not sure how you will be financially able to keep your house. Being exhausted by having to wear a mask to protect your neighbor from a deadly disease is not the same thing as being exhausted trying to protect yourself from that disease when your neighbors are more concerned about their own comfort than your life.
Being exhausted by the ongoing experience of systemic oppression and the apparent indifference to it or even defense of it by a significant portion of the population is not the same thing as being exhausted by suddenly spending much more time and energy than we’re used to learning about those systems of oppression and something of what it’s like to experience them, and trying to figure out what we can and should do to change them.
“Let us not grow weary in doing what is right,” Paul tells the Galatians, towards the end of his letter to them. He doesn’t tell them, “don’t grow weary” in general; he doesn’t tell them “I know you’re tired, but buck up and dig deep.” He says “let us not grow weary in doing what is right.” Because doing what is right can certainly be wearisome. We grow weary trying to do right in all our various personal responsibilities at the same time. We grow weary trying to do right through the hassle of staying at home and practicing physical distancing. Those of us who are white grow weary of doing right by trying to understand and help dismantle systemic racism. We want all this to be over, accomplished, done, so we can get on with life the way we want it, the way it is supposed to be.
What’s both strange and significant about Paul’s instructions before he says that at first it sounds like he can’t make up his mind on how to do what is right. First he says, “bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the work of Christ.” Then just two verses later he says, “all must carry their own loads.” What Paul is getting at in this whole section is what is so easy for us to forget: he’s not writing to an individual, he’s writing to a Christian community, one that is simultaneously divided among itself on what it means to be a faithful Christian while also being at odds with the unjust and self-centered world around them.
Bearing one another’s burdens is obviously one means of fulfilling the law of Christ’s that he gave to his disciples right before his crucifixion: to love another just as he had loved them. And carrying your own load in the sense of responsibilities rather than burdens is another way to love others by doing the work you are capable of and not burden them with your actions or inactions.
What seems to be a paradox or a conflict is actually a clear signal to the Galatians and also to us as we find ourselves in an extraordinary time, with great burdens, significant conflict and division, and the question of how we treat each other and the larger world: “Bear one another’s burdens,” and “carry your own load.” Do your own work to love each other and your neighbors, and don’t do it alone. We have been trying to do that here at First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem over the past four months and, in truth, over the past one hundred and forty-four years.
But the last four months have required a new kind of commitment and energy. We have called each other on the phone to check in; we have passed Christ’s peace to one another and shared communion with one another through digital media; we have cooked meals for those of us who felt unsafe venturing out to the store or overwhelmed trying to cook for ourselves at home. We have provided gift cards to our homeless neighbors from our local restaurants to support them both during this time of unprecedented need.
We have gathered together digitally to pray for each other and our community and world in our new Midweek Reflections. We have gathered together digitally to do the hard work of learning about the dynamics of systemic racism in our society and how Christians have a particular responsibility and opportunity to help dismantle it. And we have found an extraordinary common strength and resilience together as we have done so, even as we struggle with our individual exhaustion from all of this.
That is the promise that Paul is highlighting, the promise that Christ offers to all those who seek to follow him as his disciples. Because every individual grows weary in following at some point, no matter how strong and committed they are, regardless of how heavy their particular load may be; every person eventually needs to sit down and rest if they are going to keep going. But a community of people who both carry their own load and bear one another’s burdens will never grow weary in doing right, because there is always someone else to help with the burden while you rest, until you are ready to get up and get back in the action and relieve someone else so they can rest, too.
So if you are weary, set down your load for a moment to rest and recover your strength, because resting, too, is part of the journey. And if you have been resting, now is the time to step up: to help others shoulder the burdens they are carrying that threaten to overwhelm them. And together, we will follow Christ wherever he leads us, through these days and all days to come until the days themselves end in the everlasting light of Christ’s justice, mercy, and peace.