Dead Things

When I was in high school, I read the novel First Blood, which is the novel that the Rambo movies were based on. As is often the case, the movies were very unlike the book.

In the novel, John Rambo, a homeless Vietnam vet, is passing through a small town when the local sheriff tags him as trouble. Keep in mind this is in 1972. The novel talks about Rambo’s beard and unkempt appearance. The war was just ending, and many folks returned to broken dreams and brought their nightmares with them.

One thing the author, David Morrell, does well is we are privy to the inner thoughts of John Rambo, a homeless trained killer. Early in the novel, he sees a dead cat on the side of the road. It seems like it was a nice cat, he thinks, and wonders what series of events caused its demise.

Then he thinks that that is one thing that has changed for him after the war. He notices dead things more.

Trauma changes your brain like that.

On the other side of my burnout, my brain changed, and then after the trauma of 2020 and 2021, it changed some more. I, too, notice dead things more than I did before. I, too, wonder about the stories that led to their destruction and empathize with the people who experienced the loss.

And I crave predictability. Routine. Safety. I love to read, but I bet I have reread every novel by Rex Stout and Agatha Christie at least three times in the last five years. I’m currently on my 5th marathon of Murder She Wrote. Formulaic fiction is my comfort food, where I won’t be surprised, and there is no real tension, and I’m not emotionally involved. I bet I haven’t read any new literary fiction in 5 years. I miss it so.

I hadn’t read any John Grisham in a decade, and on a lark, borrowed an audiobook of one of his novels to listen to on my walk. It was not amazing, but OK, and I was into the story, and there was a moment when one of the characters was about to do something self-destructive, and I had to turn it off. I still don’t know if they got arrested for drinking and driving.

I get tired much easier than I used to, despite my being in much better shape than I was then, and getting much more sleep than I did then. My temper is shorter than it was, and yet I’m less eager to fight. Not because I am afraid of confrontation, but because I know it’s not good for me. Or them, honestly.

Crowds freak me out a bit. I’m thinking that I will stand six feet from people until I die. Every single ambition I had in early 2015 is gone. My life changed, and then the world changed. A lot of people died. And we all acted like they didn’t.

I no longer desire to “go viral” or write sharable content. Viral content is mostly content that evokes strong reactions, and I don’t really want to do that.

I want to write my stories, go for my walks, feed my chickens, plant my flowers, worship at my little church, and work to improve my city and state. I just want to have an ordinary, boring life. I just want us all to make it.

Trauma changes your brain like that.

The Movies I Can’t Watch

The longer I am away from doing work on the streets, the more I realize how traumatic that work actually was, the ways it impacted me and my brain, and the very real ways it continues to show up. Here’s a small example:

I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but if I had to guess, it was probably in 2016 or so, when the worst of the burnout was coming on. It was probably inevitable, spending as much of my time as I did cleaning up messes other people had made because of their bad choices. But somewhere along the way, I lost the ability to watch people engage in self-destructive behavior. Even if they are only actors, pretending to do it.

For example, last year, we watched the movie The United States vs. Billie Holiday. It was a masterful movie, brilliantly shot. And I got up and walked out of the room at least five times. If you don’t know, a central theme of the movie (as well as a central theme of Holiday’s life) was her recurring bad choices around drug use.

It’s not the drug use itself that bothers me, really – it is seeing her have a way out, and making a choice you will end poorly. It’s like the opposite of empathy, or perhaps more like negative empathy – I understand what she is feeling, I just reject it. And I can’t watch it. I literally feel anxiety at watching people make self-destructive choices. And sometimes, it’s so bad I have to leave the room.

Or another example: I recently discovered the British crime drama Unforgotten, which has five seasons of back issues on Amazon Prime. Each season follows one storyline, and the idea is that we are following a police unit that deals with murders that happened 20+ years ago. Now that the murders are being investigated, all the people who were involved and haven’t heard anything about this case in forever and went on with their lives now have this all dredged up again. It’s fascinating and very well done.

But in season two, a character makes recurring bad decisions that are self-destructive, and the choices could impact a child. I had to stop in episode 4, and just skip on to the next season. I couldn’t watch someone make self-destructive decisions.

Unfortunately, people making self-destructive choices is a major plot device in TV and movies.

Take people who cheat on their partners, for example. I can watch a movie where that happens, as long as there isn’t a scene where they consciously make the decision to do it. I’m Ok with people who live a life of crime, as long as there isn’t a scene where they consciously violate someone’s trust, like stealing from Grandma to fund their addiction. If there is a scene where they appear to be making a choice, and they choose a self-destructive option when they had a healing one available to them, I will probably get up and leave – at least for a while.

These things are legitimately triggering for me. And there isn’t an easy shorthand explanation for the specific trigger. So, I get caught by surprise a lot, which makes watching anything other than kids cartoons pretty hard.

It is similar to the way I can’t handle being around people who are drunk, but it’s actually worse. I feel dread and a sense of doom for the people engaged in self-destructive behavior. I feel – literally feel, in my gut, in my bones, even – what I imagine they should feel, but don’t.

Brains are strange, though. Because I saw two violent murders happen in front of me in the years I did that work, and while I don’t particularly enjoy realistic violent movies, they don’t bother me in the same way that movies about drug use or self-destruction do.

That’s the thing about trauma – you don’t know where it will show up until it does.

Deserved Maintenance

Some years ago, I was talking to the person who was my spiritual director at the time. I was in the midst of unrecognized (by me, anyway) burnout, and she was encouraging me to take some time away. We had found a retreat that sounded lovely to me, but there was so much work to be done, so much need in the world, and the idea of my hitting pause on that merely because I needed time away seemed so wrong to me.

I told her that. I also told her that it seemed so self-centered, this idea of claiming time for myself, of putting my own needs first.

“I grew up surrounded by men who worked hard for very little money. It wasn’t joyful work. It was hot and sweaty, and they thought a lot more about survival than they did rejuvenation. Nobody would have recommended they take a week of retreat at a monastery. They didn’t get sabbaticals. Hell, they barely got vacation. If anybody deserved time for self-care, it was them!”

We were sitting in her sunroom, on her heavily wooded suburban lot. Her little furry dog lay on the floor at my feet, and my tea was on the coffee table, untouched and rapidly cooling. Outside, birds flitted from limb to limb as my words hung in the air.

She sat there, legs crossed, a cup of tea in her hands, elbows on the arm of the chair, chin down, staring into the cup of tea as if it contained answers. Maybe it did.

She looked up at me, took a sip of tea, and said, “You’re right. They did deserve it. And can you imagine how different their life could have been if they had gotten it?”


As I try to rebuild a life after burnout, in the midst of a pandemic, and while dealing with depression, it sometimes seems like self-care is a full-time job. I swim almost every day, which takes anywhere from 30-45 minutes. On the days I don’t swim, I walk, which takes 45 minutes. I do my morning pages, which can take from a half-hour to an hour, depending on how the words come. I have a deliberate morning routine and evening routine. I monitor my food. I try to keep boundaries up between work and not work, and I try hard to prioritize family time and time away.

And it can all feel a little self-indulgent at times. Like I’m at the center of the universe, and so if I reply to a simple, non-urgent request on Friday at 4:50 PM that I will take care of it Monday, despite that it wouldn’t take 20 minutes to do, it can feel a bit like I’m being a jerk. More than once, the person asking me for that favor has made it clear that is how they interpreted it, too.

But that’s ridiculous. If I asked if you wanted to go hiking with me on Monday, and you said you couldn’t because you had to work, I wouldn’t be offended. But that’s because it is socially acceptable to spend ⅓ of your life working on someone else’s projects in exchange for money to pay your bills to maintain your house, and not socially acceptable to say that you have promised your wife that Friday night is just for her in order to maintain your marriage.

But all of the things a human needs cannot be purchased with the money that we trade, if we are lucky, that ⅓ of our life for. We also need community and health and connection and peace of mind and rest – all things that can’t be bought with money, but instead can only be acquired by deliberate practice.

So, if we have normalized eight hours, at a minimum, a day earning the money which only takes care of a portion of our needs, what is a fair amount of time to trade for everything else? If eight hours is a reasonable time to spend getting the money, what is a reasonable amount of time to spend on maintenance? If I spend 15 minutes of my day in a morning routine that gives me clarity and focus, is that a wise investment of my time? If I trade 45 minutes of movement for lower blood pressure and healthy glucose levels, is that worth it? If 30 minutes of winding down mean that the 7 hours of sleep I get is restful and rejuvenating, shouldn’t I do it?

We make those calculations all the time, and we always bid against ourselves. But we never ask those questions about work.

People seldom miss work because they need the money. However, they often miss sleep, as if they didn’t need the rest. They eat crap food, while in a rush, often in their car, as if they didn’t need the nourishment and energy that comes from good food. They keep the eight hours of work as inviolate but willingly give up their date night with their partner, or an hour of sleep, or supper with their kids, because they are “busy”.

Your work provides the income you need to live your life – but it shouldn’t “be” your life. You deserve so much more than that.

“It is not enough to be industrious; so are the ants. What are you industrious about?” Thoreau asked us all those years ago, and today, most of us still don’t have a good answer.


Making Room

It was September of 2016, and I was fried.

It was my 10th year of doing frontline work with virtually no break for very little money. My wife had a heart transplant the year before, changing our lives forever and dramatically complicating it.

Some people who cared about me had put some money together and arranged for me to take a month off – not as a vacation as much as a sabbatical of sorts. I would get some downtime, learn things, and do some writing. So we spent a week at the beach in North Carolina and another week on Jekyll Island in Georgia, and I went to Hollywood, California for a week to see something different and to listen to Rob Bell for a while.

Rob was legendary in the circles I moved in at the time, having been the voice of deconstruction for many of us who had grown up in evangelicalism. Books like Velvet Elvis had given us language for what so many of us had felt, and his Nooma videos and his attention to aesthetics made many of us feel known.

But he was also a gifted communicator, and after he left the ministry, he made his living writing books and giving classes on, among other things, communication and speaking. And since I made a hunk of my living giving speeches and sermons, I was glad I got the opportunity to go and sit in on his three-day class on speaking.

Rob is so ADHD; he makes me look like Yoda. However, it’s always a high-energy experience, and he is not boring at all, and he really is incredibly gifted at this, so I was excited to go. But what I don’t think I was prepared for was how confessional it was.

Public figures like Rob practice what I call selective vulnerability. I do it, too, here on the blog. I’ve decided what parts of my story are open to the public and what parts are private. And because I draw those lines in different places than some people would, it can seem dramatically open to people who have other boundaries than I do.

Sometime on the second day, Rob told of his first full year in LA after leaving the church in Michigan. The way I remember that he told it, there was a TV show in the works – think Oprah or Ellen – a talk show, but around spiritual topics. They filmed the pilot, and his people talked to their people – they had a deal and would start filming after the beginning of the year.

Rob cleared his calendar and waited for the phone to ring.

The phone didn’t ring. The new year started, and nobody called. Weeks went by. His agent assured him the deal was still on.

One day his agent called and said the deal was off.

“Sometimes that happens out here,” he said.

Rob said he had just bought a new house and had nothing on his calendar for the whole year. No book deal in progress. No speaking tour lined up—no idea how any money at all was going to come in that year.

So he sat down at his kitchen table with his teenage son’s microphone and started recording what would become his first podcast.

And then he did it again the following week. And the next.

And he said that the podcast gave him structure and made room for things to happen. It gave him something to focus on, and by focusing on that, other things became clear. Nowadays, Rob’s podcast is hugely popular, and since then, he’s written many more books and done tours, and people have flown from North Carolina to listen to his class on speaking.

“So, the moral is,” he said, laughing, “If you ever get stuck and don’t know what to do, start a podcast. Or at least start something.”

It was September of last year. I was feeling stuck. It was 18 months into a pandemic that had crushed every plan I had when I moved here. I was 10 months into a deep depression I was just beginning to move out of. I needed something on which to focus.

So I started a blog. It launched in the middle of September, and by October, I was publishing twice a week. But I started posting every day in November, and I’ve kept that up (except Sundays) ever since. I’m now 121 posts in, more than 100,000 words. More than 500 folks have signed up to get the links each week by email, plus many who read it on Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr.

And it’s made room I didn’t have before. I now field offers for projects weekly. People want to collaborate in ways I hadn’t imagined before. Offers open up. People want to meet. To be clear – almost none of this is directly related to the blog. They aren’t wanting to meet about something I wrote – but it is as if I made room for it to happen. For example, I got asked to do my first wedding in Mississippi today – by someone who has never met me, after being referred to me by someone who has never met me.

Yes, that sounds woo-woo. And no, I don’t care.

The rest of the story: I came back to work after my trip to LA. The same hot mess I left was still there, made worse by my absence for a month. The following spring it almost collapsed, and the following year, I was done. You can’t fix systemic problems with a spa day. Or even a trip to Hollywood.


Advice You Will Ignore

Since posting my story of burnout, I have had no less than 5 conversations with people in similar places. All people in the so-called helping professions, all doing good work, all exhausted.

I used to teach classes on self-care, but if I did it now, I wouldn’t call it that. Because sometimes, the most self-loving thing you can do is walk the hell out the door, never to return. And I’m not really interested in helping uphold failing systems that rely on the sacrifices of good people to survive.

But, I do recognize that exhausted people have very little capacity to effect change, or to fight for their own liberation. And if giving someone the tools to conserve even a portion of their energy for their own use gives them margin to effect change, then it’s probably worth doing.

Here are some things, in no particular order, that I wish I had learned and taken seriously early in my career. Many of them I have shared before, while others I have only recently learned. None of them are definitive – in most cases, they are starting points for you to investigate. Most of them are inexpensive, or can be budgeted for. None of them involve spa-days or pedicures.

I also want to say that you will probably ignore all this. I did, and I was the one teaching it. But I really wish I hadn’t.

The most important thing you can do, if you want to change the world, is to survive long enough to do it. It has been my experience that dead people have very little influence on society.

  1. Buy yourself a calendar, and write things down. A calendar is an integrity document – things that go on it are promises to yourself and others. Important things get scheduled. Schedule non-work things – lunches with friends, trips with your spouse, doctor visits – just like you would an appointment. Guard these against work intruding.
  2. You need a few people you can trust without question. Schedule regular time with those people.
  3. Make friends who have nothing to do with your work. You are more likely to keep up with friends if you schedule them as appointments. Like, the 3rd Friday of the month at 3 PM is always “Coffee with Judy” on your calendar.
  4. Related to #3 – the more standing appointments you can have, the less you have to think, and the fewer decisions you have to make. Set it as a recurring meeting in your calendar and then you never have to think about it again. This can be everything from the barber to the gym to the therapist to the coffee shop. I had a period there where every Tuesday afternoon from 2-5 was just when I did my writing, and every Wednesday morning I met with my direct reports.
  5. Remember always that you, as a person, are nowhere near as important as you think you are to anyone at your work. If you dropped dead tomorrow, they would have your job posted before you were in the ground. If removing you from the picture will kill it, it’s already dead and you are just paying for it to stay alive with your energy.
  6. Decisions you make when you are Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired will probably be bad decisions. If you feel any of those things and are facing a big decision, HALT. (Get it?)
  7. Sleep is everything. If you aren’t getting at least 7 hours of sleep (without self-medicating) on a regular basis, do whatever you need to do to make that happen.
  8. A surgeon must protect her hands to protect her ability to work. You must protect your energy for the same reason, and just as rigorously. Energy is like money – it’s easier to spend less than it is to make more.
  9. Develop a life and an identity apart from your work. You won’t always be Pastor Sarah, but you will always be Mom. So maybe don’t invest so much energy in something that won’t last.
  10. Read books and watch movies that have nothing to do with your work.
  11. Find affordable luxuries to pamper yourself with. You are unlikely to go broke because you bought the good face soap rather than the generic, but the good soap will make you feel special every time you use it.
  12. Take the vacation. In blocks of 5 days in a row or more.
  13. Develop rituals in your life. They will ground you and give you things to do when you don’t know what to do.
  14. The more options you have in any given situation, the better you will sleep and the more peace you will have. Fight to have as many options as possible.
  15. Eat the best food you can afford. It is both fuel and pleasure.
  16. Daily exercise – even if it is just a walk around the block or riding your bike to work – is crucial. And no, all the steps you get in while at work doesn’t count.
  17. You are probably dehydrated.
  18. The temptation to use chemicals to manage your state is overwhelming. A “beer after work” is easy to become a “bottle of wine after work”. Find non-chemical ways to manage your state.
  19. If you don’t work from your home, figure out how to turn work off before you walk in the door of your house. Transitional rituals (like stopping at the coffee shop on the way home, or silencing your phone after you park the car in the driveway, or walking around your garden before you go in the house) can help with this.
  20. If you do work from home, figure out how to signify when you are done with work – like, closing the laptop, or shutting the door to the office. I will often walk around the block when I’m done, as a way of telling myself I’m “walking home”.
  21. There are no such thing as guilty pleasures. Like what you like. If that is eating ding-dongs while listening to Taylor Swift, own that shit. The sheer amount of guilt people will try to put on you is nearly endless, so don’t guilt yourself.
  22. Your ability to survive long-term in a world filled with ugliness is directly related to how much beauty you have in your life. Beauty is like Vitamin C – your body needs it, and yet cannot store it.  Search for beauty and surround yourself with it like your life depends on it. Because it does.

On the Other Side of Burnout

I’m not sure when it happened.

Maybe it was taking Nancy off the ventilators and watching her die as a result of the drugs she just couldn’t beat. Maybe it was when Liz died when relapsed and someone gave her laced heroin. Or before she died, when she was severely sexually assaulted and then went back to the guy who did it. Twice.

Or maybe it was when Eric was murdered in front of me, or when I visited Steve in jail after he killed another guy, or when I watched the woman I promised I would sit in the dark with, die while I watched.

But I don’t know. Maybe it was when trusted employees tried to destroy what I had spent years building, or when I got pulled out of the mothballs when the news needed a talking head on the 10th anniversary of my friend Martha’s murder, or maybe it was just when I realized the big church that wouldn’t give us any money was going to keep referring people to us.

I don’t know when it was, exactly. But at some point, I burned out. I just couldn’t watch my friends die anymore. I just couldn’t keep going. But at the time, I didn’t know that, either.

Twelve years. For 12 years I did that work. I was the person you called when you had no one else to call.  Sometimes that looked like fighting the hospital bureaucracy that wanted to discharge you to the streets when you had no home and sometimes it looked like fighting the city that said you didn’t deserve to eat, but for 12 years, I was that guy. I was really, really good at being that guy, too. Hell, I even liked being that guy.

Not long ago, I tried making a list of the people I loved who died from poverty in those 12 years, but they all tend to run together after a while. I know it was dozens. Sometimes they visit me in my dreams. Every winter people I loved would freeze in the woods, and we would find them after the thaw. I still get triggered by snow – I feel anxiety creeping into my bones when I watch the winter weather forecast.

I taught classes on self-care, but like many before me, I was better at coaching than I was playing. It isn’t that I didn’t have good boundaries – I did, and do. I just didn’t know when to quit. I didn’t know how to stop.

In 12 years I had one vacation that lasted more than a week. The first five of those 11 years I barely made minimum wage. My wife had a heart transplant in 2015, and within twenty-four hours I was doing crisis management on the phone while she was in a medically induced coma beside me.

It wasn’t that I was bad at my job – I was really, really good at my job, actually. I was just tired. I was tired, but I couldn’t sleep. I had a whole year there where I could not sleep unaided. I would have nightmares when I was asleep, and panic attacks when I was awake.

And then, in 2017, the depression came on like a wave and damn near killed me. I was just self-aware to recognize it for what it was, and I got some help. And once the fog lifted, once I wasn’t standing in the storm anymore, I realized I needed to stop. It wasn’t so much self-care at that point as it was survival.

After the fog lifted that fall, I knew I had to leave. I had to. So, nine months later, I did.

* * *

It was three and a half years ago that I drove a U-Haul 12 hours across the country and pulled up in front of an apartment building that would be our home for the next six months while I found us a place to live.

I didn’t just need a rest, I needed to build something new. I needed to learn how to be a different sort of person. I needed a new way to be Hugh. A way that was kinder to me, and to the people who love me. And it’s happening, albeit slowly.

I’m prioritizing my health these days, which means I don’t get as much done as I used to. Adrenaline is, after all, a hell of a drug. I sleep at least six hours most nights. I prioritize movement, and I’m attentive to what I eat.

Things don’t happen as fast as they once did, and I get tired faster than I used to. They say that goes away over time, and it has some, if slowly. I still have trouble sleeping, but not as much as I used to. I have a lot of anxiety around money, but that has always been true. For years, my fundraising strategy involved crisis, You don’t have to be Freud to see that was unhealthy, even as I try to find sustainable ways and methods to replace it.

My family is a day trip away, and that feels pretty amazing. When Dad died in 2020, it was a tremendous gift to be so accessible, even in the midst of a pandemic. I have always been better at loving than being loved, but these days I am trying hard to learn how to do that, too.

While still committed to justice, and perhaps even more so than before, my work is much more behind the scenes than it once was. I’m on no reporters speed dial.  I have more influence and fewer adversarial relationships now than I did in those days. I am pastoring a small group of people who don’t need me to survive, but who just love me because I am me. Unlike my first 12 years of ministry, I can give my home address to people I minister among.

Like all of you, I have had to do this while trying to survive a pandemic. This is exhausting, but a different kind of exhaustion. At least now, I don’t feel like I’m the only one interested in my trying to survive.

And holy hell – I have hobbies now. Things I do for pleasure. I have off-time. I have moments of joy.

Should you find yourself where I once did, I don’t really have any answers for you. I just know that sometimes you can be really good at something, and yet that thing can still kill you. I, unlike many folks I knew, survived. I buried people who didn’t. I don’t know how or why, but I squeaked through, and I made it out the other side.

I’m older now. I am not as strong as I once was, but think maybe I am wiser than before I began. At least I hope I am.

But most of all, I’m glad I’m still here.