There’s a beautiful poem by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish called Think of Others. I chose it as the opening poem of my book, The Idealist’s Survival Kit. 75 Simple Ways to Avoid Burnout. I carefully picked it because of its beauty and its inspiring message. I especially relate to the closing lines which seems fitting for all those engaged (and sometimes consumed) in helping others:
“As you think of others far away, think of yourself”
(say ‘If only I were a candle in the darkness’).
The book is my New Year’s gift to all fellow aid workers, humanitarians, activists, volunteers, “do-gooders”. I wish I could just hand over a free copy to everyone to let you know that you are not alone when the tide gets tough, when your boss is a bully, when traumatic events hit you, when you feel cynical and disconnected, or simply when you can’t find a place to call home. I hope this little book will give you some tools not only to understand and avoid burnout, but that it will also provide some food for thought on the pitfalls of “doing good”. The Idealist’s Survival Kit is a collection of reflections, musings on burnout from an existential perspective: fragments from my mind, heart, and experience, pieced together with the wisdom from books, spiritual teachings, retreats, academic research, interviews with fellow humanitarians, conversations, and laughter and tears with activists, mentors, friends.
I don’t have a simple recipe for healing, and I believe any short, standard set of steps to avoid burnout is nonsense and that anyone who advertises a “life-changing” method probably doesn’t have one. I subscribe to and borrow the words of writer Rebecca Solnit: “We are constantly given one-size-fits-all recipes, but those recipes fail, often and hard. Nevertheless, we are given them again. And again and again. They become prisons and punishments.”
There is no standard recipe. Yet recipes can give us a sort of “roadmap”. Whoever has cooked using a recipe knows that we adapt recipes to our taste and cultural milieu: the food we prepare can be delicious and satisfying even if it only remotely resembles the original steps outlined in the book. And even if we have followed the recipe pedantically, sometimes it ends up a disaster. So I invite you to use use my book flexibly, to dip in and out of it when you’re ready and it feels right: throw it in your backpack to help you style ways to live with purpose and fulfillment, to get out of the do-gooders’ rat race and into experiences that matter to you, to find ways to burn without burning out, whether you’re back home, in the field, or somewhere else entirely.
As there’s no bulletproof way to avoid burnout, and no quick one-size-fits-all solution, what I offer here—after years of humanitarian work and activism, trying to reconcile the paradoxes of my inner and outer life, of reflection and action—are some ideas. I offer ideas on how to resist a culture that turns busyness and exhaustion into a barometer to assess our value as human beings, ideas on how to take care of ourselves while serving others. We can resist by searching for meaning amidst a chaotic yet fulfilling personal and professional exploration. We can begin to take care of ourselves by recognizing that small things matter and by deliberately stepping out of the blender of compulsive busyness. I hope that The Idealist’s Survival Kit will accompany you in the coming year and it will help you to keep doing work that matters. Without burning out.
Wishing you a happy and fulfilling 2017!
The Idealist’s Survival Kit. 75 Simple Ways to Avoid Burnout is now available on Amazon, Book Depository (free delivery worldwide) and even better at your local bookshop in the US. For those in Israel/Palestine, I’m proud and happy to know that the Educational Bookshop in East Jerusalem will stock the book.
Here you can read the foreword by Hugo Slim, Head of Policy at the International Committee of the Red Cross.