The psychologist Viktor Frankl survived Auschwitz and came out as an inspiring individual from that horrendous experience. His extraordinary quality came from his connection to some profound existential meaning in his life. Meaning is what makes things possible and beautiful, and what helps us when the shit hits the fan. One can find meaning even in the most extreme and difficult situations, and I feel that this is crucial for aid workers, whose dreams of changing the world often turn into disillusion and bitter cynicism. I’ve been there too.
I read the experience of burnout that many aid workers have as a loss of meaning. Cumulative stress, unhealthy life-style, too much work. This is all true, but it is not the whole picture. Aid workers burnout when they have invested their life in humanitarian work, focusing on something that was supposed to give them meaning (caring for others, fighting for justice, working towards peace), but at some point they cannot connect with the meaning of all that any more. Burnout is the healthy part of us saying: ‘stop now, reconnect to what’s meaningful’. Whatever that meaning may be for you it is crucial to reconnect with it and cultivate it. Here’s a video where Victor Frankl talks about the spark that gives meaning in our life, it’s an old black and white footage, but still relevant for those who strive for meaning in the chaos of our life (p.s. the chaos may be part of the meaning).