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Chapter 2 - Work vs. Fatigue
"Will you walk a little faster?” said a whiting to a snail,
"There's a porpoise close behind us, and he's
treading on my tail.”
So writes Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland. A whiting is one kind of fish and a porpoise is another creature that lives in water. This I learned from my dictionary. But all of us know that a snail is synonymous with slowness.
This story is a parable of our work: We have to move faster because we are always behind and something is gaining on us. Would that we could blame this situation on some slow-moving person ahead of us. We cannot. We blame it on the assembly line moving too fast for us to keep up. We blame it on the unfairness of the competition, the lack of appreciation from our superiors, the lack of opportunity for advancement, etc. Whatever we blame it on, we come home at night exhausted, fatigued. The fatigue is only slightly less when we arise from our sleep and push ourselves to work the next day.
Maybe if you and I understand our fatigue better, we can discover springs of renewal in the day's work itself. Maybe we can get more mileage from the energy we use, with less wear and tear on our organism. The speed of advanced communications systems today is that of light—186,000 miles a second, or about two thirds of a billion miles an hour. The speed of transportation possible today—in the case of dozens of kinds of aircraft, chiefly military—is faster than 1,040 miles an hour, the rate at which the earth revolves. In our imagination, you and I often think that we must do our work that fast, too! Such expectations make fatigue epidemic.
What Is Fatigue?
Fatigue is weariness from labor or exertion; it is exhaustion of strength. It is your overall response to the demands or stresses placed upon you. These demands and stresses may come from your work situation. They may come from the countless tasks you undertake and from the expectations you have of yourself. Or they may come from the despair you feel about routine activities that demand little or no physical exertion but impose intolerable strain upon your happiness and dignity and frustrate your sense of purpose in life. You would rather be elsewhere, doing something else, or even being someone else!
Fatigue dearly results from overexertion either at work or in athletic activity that is not balanced with rest and restoration of energy. Studies of bodily processes show that during work, oxygen and glucose are consumed. Waste products are formed such as carbon dioxide, exhaled from the lungs, and uric acid, excreted in the urine. In this sense, your fatigue may be measured in terms of a bodily state in which waste products are in high concentration. Your human organism is, then, an energy-converting system with a definite functional relation to work performance. This is a normal process in every healthy person.
However, basic physical and emotional disorders can be operative in producing fatigue. An underactive thyroid gland may produce a wide range of fatiguing symptoms. Emphysema shortens the breathing capacity of a person, and he or she wears out rapidly. Arthritis and other pain syndromes exhaust a person. Poor nutrition shows up especially in school children who are easily fatigued. Pregnant mothers take nutritional supplements as the fatigue of pregnancy wears them down. Obesity is a vicious cycle of fatigue and eating in its own right. The excessive weight takes energy to carry around. The obese person tends to substitute food for rest, and that adds to the weight. Similarly, alcohol can be taken by a fatigued person in order to get a "lift" of temporary good feeling.
The most persistent psychological factor in fatigue and exhaustion is stress. Hans Selye described the three phases of stress as alarm reactions, followed by resistance or coping measures, followed by exhaustion. Thomas Holmes outlined forty-three stress events associated with severe losses such as the death of a family member, a divorce, a job loss; or with changes in one's life situation such as changing jobs, sleeping conditions, places of dwelling; or with moving from one era of life to another as when graduating from school, taking one's first job, getting married, becoming a parent, or retiring from work. He suggested that the accumulation of these stress events in exceptionally brief spans of time make fatigue and exhaustion more likely. Yet other persons, such as Marc Fried and Peter Bourne, aptly observe that we can raise our capacity for tolerating stress through discipline, skill development, adequate equipment with which to work, and clarified motivation for living and working. Those about us can reduce fatigue and exhaustion when they appreciate our efforts and reward us adequately for them.
A more subtle psychological force in fatigue is the factor of motivation. Abraham Maslow is most helpful in relating our motivation for action, effort, and work to a hierarchy (different levels) of needs. The most basic of these are survival instincts and needs such as food, shelter, and sexual gratification. Next comes the seed for safety. Higher still are the needs for belonging and love. Next come the seeds for self-esteem, self-respect, and personal dignity. At the peak of the hierarchy are the needs for self-actualization sad personal achievement. As Robert Frost put it in "The Death of the Hired Man," we need something we can "look backward to with pride" and something we can "look forward to with hope." Without these needs being met, you and I lose heart and develop "giving up and giving in" responses to life's demands, and what energies we have are depleted more quickly. Jesus spoke of this as "fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world" (Luke 21:26). In the secular push of the day's work this collapse of morale is dubbed "burnout," a chronic state of being worn out with one's work, a pervasive form of fatigue. Zest in living and working is the opposite of this kind of fatigue.
Rest and Renewal in the Face of Fatigue
You have every right to ask me: "Now that I know what fatigue is, how can I deal with it rather than let it become a way of life that gradually wastes me away?" Let me see if I can make some concrete suggestions to answer this question.
Quit Trying to Live Life All at Once
I mentioned the speeds of communication (186,000 miles a second) and transportation (more than 1,040 miles an hour) that are possible today. As Marshall McLuhan said, the world has become a global village. This atmosphere of our age has seeped down into our beings in such a way that we expect instant accomplishment of any task. We expect to live our whole lives in a moment's time. This is a temptation that tests our characters even as it did Jesus' character in the wilderness. 'The devil took him up, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, To you I will give all this authority and their glory; for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it shall all be yours' " (Luke 4:5–7). Just like that! Just like that? In a moment of time? Who is deceiving whom? Jesus' remarkable grasp of the slow wisdom of the laws of growth and personal discipline under God would not permit him either to be deceived or to deceive himself. There are no shortcuts! There are no quick fixes. Instant achievement is a false hope that uses you up, wears you out, and fatigues the very tissues of your body.
To be more specific, take a look at what Thomas Holmes said about stress events accumulating in a short span of time. Some of these events are developmental events. They are mileposts of maturity. You can burn yourself out by crowding these events into a short span of time. You may be trying to finish school, succeed mightily on your first job, get married, and buy a new car and a new house all at once. You do have some power to spread these events out if you are not deluding yourself that all these can be yours in a moment of time.
David Elkind, in his book The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon (Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1981), has shown how we push growing sons and daughters into adult behaviors, denying them the right to grow up gradually. We want instant adults of our children just as we want instant achievement for ourselves. This pushiness fatigues the stuff of our being. By the time children are sixteen they have "seen it all," and by the time parents are thirty-five to thirty-eight they think of life as having passed them by. Do not allow this telescoping of your life eras by jamming them together; it could wear you out prematurely.
Take an Honest Spiritual Inventory of Your Basic Health
As we have seen, the condition of your health affects your fatigue and energy level. You as a Christian may be like some Christians to whom the apostle Paul wrote in the sixth and twelfth chapters of Romans. You may believe that your body has nothing to do with your spiritual energies and sense of well-being under God. Hence, you may be trying to live your life as if you don't have a body. You can do as you please and your body will not be bruised, you may think. Not so! This is a second great self-deception.
If you act as if you do not have a body, the first message your body gives you to tell you that you are deceiving yourself is the message of fatigue. You experience fatigue first as a distortion of your perception of things and events around you. Then you begin to make poor decisions and your judgment is impaired. Then you fall into confusion and conflict with yourself and others. A rigorous and honest inventory of your health and health habits is urgent.
For example, here are several questions for you:
- How many hours of sleep do you think you need to be an efficient person? When I ask people this question I am amazed to hear them say four, five, and six hours more often than seven, eight, or nine, though the latter estimates are more humanly realistic.
- Do you smoke tobacco or marijuana? If you cut them out, your breathing will provide more oxygen to your whole body, and especially to your brain. You will head emphysema or lung cancer off at the pass. Your fatigue level will be reduced and your energy level increased.
- Are you overweight? You may be substituting food for rest and sleep. Are you? Do you use high-calorie food and drink to offset fatigue? If you bring your weight to normal, you will find that this releases fresh energy and that you can move with less effort.
- Do you get enough physical exercise? Walking or swimming are complete exercises. You may be a jogger or a runner, but you don't have to be an athlete to take seriously walking and patterns of exercise that a good physiotherapist can prescribe. Weave these into your daily routine.
- Have you seen your doctor lately for an examination and testing that would reveal such energy-depleting processes as hypothyroidism, low blood pressure, anemia, and others that your physician can identify clinically?
Develop a Code of Energy Use
Very few people consciously work out a code of behavior that specifically targets the flaws in personal philosophy that fate them to waste energy, accumulate fatigue, and to get the least return for the maximum investment of their life force. You need not be one of these thoughtless persons. You can "code" your own behavior by some working principles that assure you of an economy of energy, a minimum of fatigue, and a maximum return on the minimum investments of your life force.
Hans Selye, the Canadian physiologist who pioneered the studies of stress, says that most people can break out of being race horse achievers or passive turtle absorbers of stress and fatigue by learning a code of behavior for their use of energy. He suggests three principles for such a code:
- Decide what your own personal level of stress and fatigue is that is most creative and comfortable for you. It should be as uniquely personal to you as your fingerprints. For example, how much responsibility can you carry at home and work and still be productive and relatively easy to live with? Or, how many hours a day can you work most wisely and still be the most effective worker? This will determine how much overtime you accept. Or, for that matter, do you have a code as to what overtime is?
- Decide that personal survival is a prerequisite for being of any service to others or to yourself. Selye calls this "altruistic egoism." The best way to survive personally is to build up a "bank" of the goodwill, respect, support, and love of one's neighbor. Selye says that this is "the most efficient way to give vent to pent up energy and to create enjoyable, beautiful, or useful things." (Haas Selye; The Stress of Life, rev. ed., p. 452; McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1976.) Another way Selye has of saying this is that you and I are to live by a philosophy of gratitude. Nothing fatigues us worse than to have our best efforts taken for granted. Even the deeply religious person who gives to, or works for, a great cause anonymously does so in secret and enjoys the gratitude of God for having pleased God.
- Work at sustaining your neighbors' affection. Maintaining their respect, trust, and love builds lasting relationships. They become your life support system and you theirs. You bear one another's burdens and fulfill the law of Christ and the very balances that keep you going. The hymn of Howard A. Walter states this well:
I would be true, for there are those who trust me;
I would be pure, for there are those who care;
I would be strong, for there is much to suffer;
I would be brave, for there is much to dare.
I would be friend of all—the foe, the friendless;
I would be giving, and forget the gift;
I would be humble, for I know my weakness;
I would look up, and laugh, and love, and lift.
I would be prayerful through each busy moment;
I would be constantly in touch with God;
I would be tuned to hear the slightest whisper;
I would have faith to keep the path Christ trod.
It may be that this "coding" does not fit you. Well and good! Then stand back from your fatigue and rethink your priorities. Work out your own code before God. Do not be tossed to and fro by the sea of demands upon your energy. Set your sails and your course so that you rest in your own convictions.
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