Burnout: The Holes in My Teeth and Soul

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Dear friends,

This week I’m sharing a story about facing our limits and listening to the pain in our lives. I hope you’re encouraged and thank you as always for stopping and thinking with me.

With love,
Andrew

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Eleven years ago, I fell flat on my face. With that crash, I began learning an important truth that I need now more than ever.

It was my third time living in Addis Ababa, and I was a 24-year-old pastor serving at a young, growing, revival-declaring church named Beza. My love for Ethiopia intensified that year, and I desired to enter into deeper community with my friends’ everyday realities. I lived in a government apartment, took public transportation, ate whatever I was served, and did what I could to live like the people around me.

But I wanted a more radical solidarity with the people I loved, so I decided to start drinking what they drank: tap water. After all, I wasn’t new to Addis, I was living by faith, and bottled water felt like a wasteful privilege that I should give up.

I can still vaguely remember sitting around a plastic table in a dodgy café as my first glass of tap water was poured from that pitcher of doom.

My intentions were good, but the results were unsurprising. I was seized by a violent fever and swung between soaking in sweat and shivering like ice. A doctor told me it was likely Typhoid, and I was bed-ridden.

But that same week, pastors from my home church in Chicago were visiting Beza, and – being the passionate, over-committed (“faithful”) person that I was – I decided that I wouldn’t let Typhoid keep me from welcoming them. I woke up early, got dressed, packed into a minibus stuffed with people, and shivered/sweated my way with a smile to the celebration in our church office.

After cake and coffee, our senior pastor invited us to stand in a circle and join him in prayer. And that was it. As soon as I stood to my feet, I blacked out, and fell face first into the concrete floor.

The person next to me said that I looked like a tree free-falling in a perpendicular crash after being chopped down in the forest. I didn’t extend my arms or try to break my fall. I was simply out, and the first thing to hit the floor was my mouth, which shattered my teeth, lacerated my lips, and sent blood gushing everywhere.

Yet again, I had good intentions and was doing something “faithful.” But I was badly sick, utterly exhausted, and my body responded to my foolish disrespect for its limits in the only way it could: by completely shutting down.

Soon enough, however, I was back on my feet and had my teeth fixed up. The Chinese oral surgeon at the clinic in Addis said I was fine and would be good to go for the rest of my life. So away I went, assuming my face-smashing fall was a funny story in my past. I never had a checkup and pressed into my future.

But that was a mistake.

Some eight years later, I started having bad pain in my mouth. I took a round of antibiotics, and the pain went away for a few months. A dentist in Addis with Christian TV blasting in his clinic even told me the issue wasn’t very serious.

But then the pain came back again and again. And with each round of antibiotics, the cycle of relief and agony got shorter and shorter.

By March 2017, I was in utterly unbearable pain and booked a flight in the middle of the night to return to Chicago for oral surgery. I have never experienced such excruciating physical agony.

After the surgeon numbed my mouth and lifted up my gums, he told me that he couldn’t believe his eyes. He said there were huge holes growing in my jawbone in the place where I had fallen and shattered my teeth. (In the x-ray at the top of this essay, the dark shadows are the holes in my jaw.) It turns out that the wound was never properly cleaned, had never actually healed, and an infection had been drilling its way into my face for the last eight years.

But somehow I hadn’t noticed the pain, and the holes got bigger and bigger. (What a paradoxical curse numbness can be.) It was only when I was in unbearable agony that I found out I was still wounded from something that had turned into an epic story to tell. My past wasn’t past, and I didn’t even know it, until the pain got me to listen by literally shutting down my body a second time.

This extended physical experience hit me this week as an illustration of an emotional and spiritual reality that I know I must face if I am going to live a truly faith-full life. And it forces me to stop and ask difficult questions of my self.

Where have I denied my limits as a finite person and let my good intentions lead me to drink “water” that will only poison me? Where have I pushed forward out of a distorted sense of faithfulness toward blackout, collapse, and shattering injury? Where am I wounded with grief and trauma but bury it in the past and suppress the pain until I find agonizing holes in my heart and mind?

In my own life, I’ve found that it frightens me to admit my limits. It’s very hard for me to confess, “I’m not able to drink the water.” I feel lazy and guilty when I need to “miss out” because I’m exhausted or emotionally overwhelmed. I feel like it’s shameful and self-indulgent to face my wounds and the fact that I need help to heal – or that I have wounds and need healing at all.

Saying no is weak. Resting is weak. Being still and silent enough to heal is weak.

As I look beneath the gums of my own soul, I find that I’ve allowed myself to believe these addictive lies cloaked in spiritual rigor. One of the most gripping lies I tell myself is that ignoring the symptoms of pain in my inner life – anxiety, fear, grief, anguished tears – is a sign of strength and real faith. To slow down – let alone stop and be still – is failure and irresponsibility.

But what if it’s the opposite? What if my feverish stand until I blackout is not faith at all? What if it’s really my fear of facing my own weakness and the holes inside of me that God wants to bring to the light and begin healing, if only I would let him and seek help?

In the powerful little book Let Your Life Speak: Listening to the Voice of Vocation, Parker Palmer writes,

“But if I am to let my life speak things I want to hear, things I would gladly tell others, I must also let it speak things I do not want to hear and would never tell anyone else! My life is not only about my strengths and virtues; it is also about my liabilities and my limits, my trespasses and my shadow. An inevitable though often ignored dimension of the quest for ‘wholeness’ is that we must embrace what we dislike or find shameful about ourselves as well as what we are confident and proud of. That is why the poet [William Stafford] says, ‘ask me the mistakes I have made.’”

These words simultaneously arrest and liberate me: “My life is not only about my strengths and virtues; it is also about my liabilities and my limits… we must embrace what we dislike or find shameful about ourselves.”

Perhaps you’re also drinking water that isn’t for you out of some moral sense of obligation. Perhaps you’re feverish and on the edge of blacking out emotionally or spiritually, because you can’t allow yourself to stop. Perhaps you’re discovering holes in your soul that you didn’t even know were there, because of a pain that won’t let you go.

If you are, you’re not alone. I’m with you, at least. And I’m slowly stopping and learning to follow Palmer’s call to let my life “speak things I do not want to hear” and am tempted to “never tell anyone else.”

This week, let your life speak, and dare to listen.

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