Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Wed, 5 Jun 1996 05:47:45 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: A Long Random Thought: A Microburst of Burnout

Right now I'm feeling my feelings. For the last ten days or so I've been saddled with a lot of negative emotional tension, with feelings of inadequacy, maybe even of failure, certainly disappointment, sadness, and discouragement.

It all started about four weeks ago when I was bouncing across campus, Tootsie Pop in mouth, just returning from the manicurist, looking proudly at the coral red painted right pinky nail that celebrated four months of being clean from my half-century long habit of ravaging nail gnawing (by the way, Kim is also still clean from her drinking).

As I was walking back to my office looking forward to reading the week's students' journals, a student in one of my first year classes, whom I'll call Sam, joined me.

"You're always smiling. How do you get to feel so good about yourself all the time?" he asked in a tone I didn't at first catch.

"I just work to find something good about each day that I can smile about. Today, it's my manicure," I answered showing him my renovated finger tips. "Ain't they nice?"

"I don't ever smile or laugh," he answered with an obvious sadness.

I stopped in my tracks. He mumbled a few more words in such a depressed way that put me on full alert. My smile disappeared. I noticed his sullen eyes and forlorn gaze. And, I realized that in class he never did smile, laugh, or engage in chit-chat.

"Want to talk about something?" I asked.

He hesitantly nodded.

We walked over to a near-by bench in front of the library and sat in the shade of a tree. He talked. I listened. As he spoke, his deceptively roundish cherub face transformed into a contorted, tortured mask. The brightness of the morning slowly was ecliped by what I can only call an darkening evil as I heard a blood-curdling first-hand "tale from the crypt" about a violent, drunken father, uncontrolled rage, constant beatings, and years of unimaginable sexual abuse. With his eyes nailed to the concrete walk, tears streaming down his cheeks, he described how his father threw him out of the house at 13, how he went to live with an uncle, how at the age of 17 he was an unwilling witness to the unexpected suicide of his best friend during a drinking spree, and now he was wracked by the recent death of his uncle, the only person he felt truly cared for him.

I don't think I can describe how I felt. Every word that comes to mind sounds so melodramatic and trite. But there were no platitudes in about anything Sam said. With every brutalizing graphic word and phrase--"sucked", "punched", "butt-f---ed", "kicked", "beat him off", "thrown"--I felt another shudder, another muscle stiffen, another breath tighten, another drop of cold sweat form. With each horrid, graphic description of his hellish childhood, I felt as if I was being thrown down to a deeper, more frigid level of Dante's inferno. My stomach took count of this unrelenting assault on my spirit as he peppered his tale of atrocities with the names of the pains that stripped of his spirit: "I feel so dirty". "It was all my fault." "I shouldn't be alive." "I guess I'm just stupid and untalented." "I'm not worth shit." "I'm rotten." "I'm such a coward." "I feel so guilty." "It was all my fault". "I hate living." "I want to please everyone and not offend anyone." "I'm afraid to disagree because I think people will hit me some more." " I live defensively." "I don't want anyone to see me." "I'm such a screw- up that I even messed up my own suicide." "Everything I say or do is to get approval of others."

His times of suffering weren't just past events. They're tire tracks left on his soul; they're life-long struggles. He was holding so tightly onto his weaknesses that he couldn't find those inner strengths--couldn't believe they existed--on which to build his life. He couldn't begin his dreams for fear of having to face his nightmares. His spirit was gasping for the breath of the pure, healthy air of faith and hope. He so desperately wanted his soul to breathe free of the putrid air: to inhale faith and exhale discouragement; to inhale love and exhale hate; to inhale peace and exhale anger; to inhale healing and exhale woundedness; to inhale strength and exhale weakness; to inhale courage and exhale fear; to inhale confidence and exhale insecurity; to inhale faith and exhale doubt; to inhale trust and exhale distrust.

Then he turned to me and just looked as if he was on stage at a revival tent waiting for some miraculously healing words. What could I say? I wasn't sure what to say. All I could offer him was a sense that he was not alone, I desribed my own experiences stemming from growing up as an ignored, taken for granted, second son in an immigrant influenced family which fawned over the first born son. I spoke of my own insecurities, weakened self-confidence; of, until recently, a strong need to be important, seen, needed; of living a life--until five years ago--without a sense of being wanted, loved, and worthy; of believing that I was a failure. I described the explosive ephiphany I experienced at my son's school six years ago; my subsequent difficult inner journey, confronting myself, asking myself the hard, honest questions, accepting nothing but the painful honest answers. I told him that he had to see through the scar tissue clouding his soul that just being on campus showed that he was not a loser, that just talking to me revealed a hidden spirit struggling not to be defeated. But, he couldn't believe he was fighting to fill voids; he couldn't break the chains on his spirit.

I had hardly finished when he shocked me back with two pleading questions, "I'm twenty-two and I'm just so tired of always crying inside. How did you stop crying?"

I replied with something like: "My journey is not your journey. I can't just 'sign you up.' The only truth that will motivate you is your own truth. You have to find your own values, importance, faith, and hope. You have to have your own dreams. But, I will tell you what I tell everyone who asks: if you find the way to walk that hard, rocky inner road, if you can find the way to asked the painfully honest questions and accept nothing less than the painfully honest answers, you will enter a world deep within yourself in which you will find strength, ability, and a potential you never dreamed existed.

As if he didn't hear me, he went on. "Tell me how to find that way, how do it." "Tell me how I stop? Tell me," he desperately pleaded, "how I get rid of these feeling? Tell me, how I can be happy."

I knew I had come to the line I dare not cross, could not cross. I told him that all I knew was that it's hard enough to find happiness within ourselves, but it's impossible to find it anywhere else. I couldn't help him answer those questions. I didn't have the expertise to offer the help he asked for, and that he needed to talk with a professional. He shook his head.

"I can't say or do anymore. It's up to you to decide what to do next, but you've taken one step. You have to decide if you have the courage to take the next." I quietly told him. "You have to see a professional. If you decide to go see our councilors, if you want, I'll be next to you."

I knew it was no use at this moment to continue our conversation. I put my hand on his knee and gave it a light, caring squeeze. He faintly smiled, but it didn't seem enough. He had such a tragic stare of disappointment. I wanted to cry with him and for him.

The hot sun beat down, yet I felt cold and numb. It was hard walking to the office. The earlier zip in my step was gone. I was emotionally spent. My muscles were stiff and ached. I could barely move my legs. I remember thinking along the way that Sam had a desperation to understand what was happening within him, a desperation to discover his place of belonging, a desperation to find a home. But, he was living so obsessively in his sordid, vivid childhood he couldn't see the beauty hidden deep inside. All the memories would let him see was a dark, hard rock core. I wasn't sure that however desperately he wanted to be somebody else whether he had the courage to risk realizing he was somebody.

When I arrived at my office, I opened a Tootsie Pop, desperate for its sweetness. I leaned back in my chair, closed my eyes, tears drifting down my cheeks, slowly shook my head in disbelief, took some deep breaths, and felt enveloped by a a sense of helpless inadequacy. Then, I called my wife.

"Just say something nice," I simply begged without so much as my normal mischievous, "hi sexy lady."

She knew. No questions, no long conversation, no trusims or sophistries, no hesitation. She understood and soothingly whispered in quick response, "I love you very much. I think I'll take you out for to dinner tonight." She always knows what to say.

"Yeah," I gratefully replied, "see ya." And, slowly hung up.

I called our campus counselor for both comfort and advice about what next do to. She assured me saying that I done everything right: listened, shared, refused to offer advice, admited limitations, urged him to see a professional. "At least, you were there to listen when he felt it was time to talk. You just have to wait it out. Encourage him when he's earned it, but don't patronize him. You've got the intuition. Let it decide what and when you should do."

"Why don't your words seem enough?" I asked even though I knew she gave me great advice.

"They will be," she propheticly replied, "when you think about them for a while."

For the next few days, I figuratively took two aspirins, just sat back, watched, and followed by friends advice. Then, Sam came up to me and told me he had decided to go to the councilor. "I'm tired of all the pain inside," explaining his decision.

As we walked to the councilor I remember phrases that kept pouring out: "I'm scared.....All the guilt has worn me down....I don't want to hate myself any more...." I left him to make an appointment and fill out the necessary forms, telling him from now on it was between him and the councilor.

A few days, Sam told me he had seen the psychologist and made another appointment. Two days after that Sam and the other two members of his triad had to put on a skit in front of the class to depict what they considered to be a key issue in a particular chapter of the textbook. They did a mediocre job. I told them to do it over and gave them the weekend to rewrite the skit. At the end of the class Sam came up to me and said he had to cancel his next appointment because of the demands of his job. I merely told him he had to do what he felt he had to do. "I don't want to stir up all that muck. I'm afraid to see that dark pain again. It hurts so much. I don't know if I can take it."

That Monday, his triad put on a great skit with Sam, dressed as a woman, boisterously acting out a character. I remember thinking that Sam's character was so out of character for him and had feeling uneasy about that as if I was witnessing a final nova. I congratulated him after class emphasizing not so much what he did, but how it reflected the potential that he had. But, I guess my gut feeling was right. I haven't seen him since, nor have his other professors. I can only guess he couldn't have a love affair with himself. I can only guess he just couldn't jump off that cliff and develop his wings on the way down and learn to soar. I can only guess he couldn't take any risk until everything signaled "Go!." I guess the time wasn't right for him to begin knowing his dreams. There was a sorrow, anger, and a sense of inadequacy that I could only helplessly watch and not be able to do something to stop someone so precious from being destroyed.

And so, the last ten days have been tough as I kept seeing Sam's dark, painful, desperate human face. This morning, while sipping a cup of freshly brewed coffee, I turned on the stereo to listen to the soundtrack from that magnificant opera, Les Miserables. As I listened to each song, I noticed something I had not before in the multitude of times I've listened the score. The two key characters, faced with a challenge to their principles reacted into different ways. In the prologue song, "What Have I Done?" the convict-hero, Jean Valjean, having stolen from a priest, is forced to take a hard look his calloused outlook of the world which was shattered by the priest's forgiveness and hauntlingly sings "And I stare into the void--to the whirlpool of my sin. I'll escape now from the world...another story must begin." He decides to break his parole to start his life anew under a new identity. In hot pursuit is the unflinching police inspector, Javert. Towards the end of the opera, Javert, whose life is spared by Valjean, himself forced to take a hard look as his unbending outlook of the world which was shattered by Valjean's mercy, hauntingly sings in his "Soliloquoy": "As I stare into the void of a world that cannot hold. I'll escape now from that world....There is nowhere I can turn. There is no way to go on." He decides to end his life and throws himself into the swollen Seine. That juxapostion offered me some needed and valuable insights.

The truth is that I think I experienced a microburst of burnout because I had for the moment merged the ideals of my vision with my expectation and became disappointed because Sam fell short of both my ideals and expectations; I had over-romanticized what I do and it's impact, and felt a let down; I had forgotten about the gap between my vision and reality so that I momentarily allowed my vision seem discouragingly and hopelessly unrealistic. I had forgotten that to reach out for a student doesn't mean I will always reach him or her, that to try to touch a student doesn't mean I will always touch him or her. And if I do someohow touch and reach a student, that doesn't necessarily mean that the student will be reached and touched when, where, to the extent and in the manner I want or expect. Unlike Javert looking into the void, though, I'm not going to throw myself into the swollen Withlacoochee. Like Valjean, I can go on because I now realize that this experience can also be a source of energy for change with which to slowly pull reality toward my vision.

I am even stronger in my belief that each of us is an invisible and indivisible whole, that each of is an organic entity of mind, body, spirit, that our intellect and physique and emotion are all inseparably connected and interconnected, that each part has an influence on the others even though that influence is usually unseen, that I can think about, understand, each student-- as well as myself--by focusing on the whole person rather than on not any one part at the expense of the others. I have reaffirmed that I have to think of a classroom as an indivdisble whole, as an ecological system in which each person is bound together in a lacework of interrelated threads who have effects on each other rather than as an atomistic gathering of dissociated parts.

I realize even more that wholeness teaching is like a dance, with energy racing back and forth between the partners in which there will always be the emotional stress and strain. I don't know what this experience meant for Sam--I hope some seed had been planted--but FOR ME at this moment it's importance rests in what I allow it to do to and for me. I can be a Javert and can take this episdoe either as evidence of powerlessness or unworthiness or inadequacy of both me and my vision and become a "given up." Or, I can be a Jean Valjean and see my involvement with Sam as an opportunity for me to learn about myself and my visions, and turn it to my advantage to remain true to my purpose: helping students acquire the faith and hope in themselves so that they can weave their own dream catchers and leave the world a better place for having been here.

The question is whether I am willing to live with that tension, with that agony of involvement and use it as a creative, active force to my strengthen my committment, to heighten my sense of mission, to deepen by vision, to sharpen the focus of my energies, to clarify what really matters to me, to continue living my life and profession in the service of my highest aspiration, and to fortify my perseverance and patience. The alternative is frightening. In the name of temporary and imagined relief from frustration and saddness and difficulty, I must lower my tolerance for that agony of involvement, diminish my vision, weaken my committment to the growth of both myself and the students, lose my excitement, undermine my enthusiasm, erode my goals, weaken my sense of higher purpose of what I do, blur my picture of the future, and surrender my dreams--maybe even become disheatened, uncertain and cynical. Like Jean Valjean and Javert, because of Sam, I "stared into the void", but unlike Javert my story goes on because what I do I must do; it is my work, my mission, my life; it is me. In the face of frustration and setbacks, I must persevere because I genuinely care. And, only when I genuinely care, can I genuinely be committed, doing with excitement and enthusiasm what I truly want to do: develop every student's vast talents and clear the way for every student's success.

So, I now know that I will carry something of this experience on with me in ways no doubt I don't currently realize. There was something Sam said that has been echoing in my soul. As we walked to the councilor, he turned and said, "Thanks for being a river in my desert." Until today, I felt like a meaningless trickle, but the possibility of being a river in someone's desert is a goal worthy of commitment, worth the agony of involvement. Now I know that I will lose both my vision and sense of mission, I will no longer take them to heart, only if I no longer believe that I can shape the future. And, I don't think there is anything more powerful I can do to encourage students in their quest than be so serious in my own quest that my passion rises from my body like steam. So, the students are going to continue to get a flood of my spirit as well as my energy not just in times of crisis, but at all times.

Make it a good day.


Louis Schmier  (912-333-5947)
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