My Irrelevant Self

by Elouise

Who doesn’t want to be relevant? Better, am I willing to be irrelevant? Unconnected, extraneous, off-topic, useless? Henri Nouwen sees a connection between the search for relevancy, and burnout.

After years of serving as a professor of pastoral psychology, pastoral theology, and Christian spirituality, Nouwen says this:

I woke up one day with the realization that I was living in a very dark place and that the term “burnout” was a convenient psychological translation for a spiritual death.

Henri J. M. Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership, pp. 15-16
Published by Crossroad Publishing Company (1989)

Ultimately, Nouwen left academic life and began serving as a priest, living in an entirely different community. He writes,

The first thing that struck me when I came to live in a house with mentally handicapped people was that their liking or disliking me had absolutely nothing to do with any of the many useful things I had done until then….

Not being able to use any of the skills that had proved so practical in the past was a real source of anxiety. I was suddenly faced with my naked self, open for affirmations and rejections, hugs and punches, smiles and tears, all dependent simply on how I was perceived at the moment….

….These broken, wounded, and completely unpretentious people forced me to let go of my relevant self—the self that can do things, show things, prove things, build things—and forced me to reclaim that unadorned self in which I am completely vulnerable, open to receive and give love regardless of any accomplishments.

Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus, pp. 15-16

Do you know burnout? I do. My desire for relevance as a seminary administrator and professor did me in. No more energy. Very little joy at work—except when I was interacting with students and colleagues. Behind the scenes, I was running on empty.

I retired. Funny word ‘retired.’ My father once worked re-tiring damaged tires. I retired, but not so I could be re-tired for further use, wear and tear. I crashed.

The first six months of retirement were bizarre. My mind worked fine if I didn’t try to do anything with it. Mind talking: ‘Leave me alone! Go outside! Take a walk! Take a nap!’ Sheer exhaustion.

My situation isn’t Nouwen’s. My challenge, however, is his. Am I willing to be “completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but [my] own vulnerable self?” (p. 17)

Blogging is one way of being in this world. For me, the challenge is whether I’m willing to write with my whole being and let it go, whether it’s relevant or not. That’s what I’m thinking about these days: blogging as an offering of my own vulnerable self, “…open to receive and give love regardless of any accomplishments.”

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 18 April 2015