the secret reason I was burning out

I’m linking up today with Amy Peterson in celebration of her book release! Dangerous Territory: My Misguided Quest to Change the World is very much on my wish list. Spiritual memoir, social justice learnings, beautiful writing: check.

For my own part, I’m not going to claim that I won’t forever be on some misguided quest or another. Here are some thoughts for all of us along such a journey.

I had always thought Santa hats were a dumb charity item. In the week leading up to the church’s famous Christmas dinner for our homeless and poor neighbors, one of the parishioners had dropped them off. “For the kids or whatever.” I thanked the well-meaning person but grumbled in my mind; I’m frustrated by this dollar-store brand of Christmastime charity. My feet shared the under-desk space with the trash bag of hats.

There were indeed a good number of kids at the dinner, and I plopped Santa hats on the heads of a brother and sister, thinking about how the hats would be in the real trash by tomorrow. A nearby adult asked for one, and I blithely passed it over to her. Then, at least in my memory, I was suddenly surrounded by twenty grabbing hands. Someone yanked a few hats out of my bag. “They’re for the kids,” I kept repeating, trying to hand them to the closest kids or parents I could see, but all the grabbers were adults. The hats quickly disappeared and some of those who hadn’t gotten them were angry with me, kept asking, examined the bag. Maybe I would’ve just been sad and a little banged up if one of these people I’d never met hadn’t spat, “You are a racist.” The utter nonsense of that statement, given that almost everyone who’d gotten a hat was the same race as the speaker, somehow made it crystal-clear what I had just seen. It was the purest embodiment of greed I’d ever encountered, everyone reaching to take before they knew what they were taking, snarling at their rivals, this man bitter and victimized when the trinkets went to the children.

At that statement I just dropped the bag and walked away. A friend (who happened to be homeless) offered to talk, but I needed to be alone. I needed to be angry that people had come to abuse an event so lovingly crafted by my church. I needed to be sad that anyone could be as upset as my name-caller while surrounded by Christmas carols and a feast. I needed to hate, hate the systems that had trained poor people to grab whatever they could from strangers at Christmastime, because there would be nothing the rest of the year, because these one-off events kept them nameless and faceless to us, because they knew that the Santa hats had been pocket change to the person who bought them.

I have never liked Santa hats, and I never will.


People who volunteer or work for nonprofits often feel like we’re not supposed to share these things. You know that someone will ignore everything else you’ve said and use your story to confirm their stereotypes of others. And people don’t like when nonprofit workers complain about their jobs; and you are grateful, in the end, for these moments. They’re reality checks; they’re empathy builders; they’re the moments that transform.

For a long time a huge part of my identity was wrapped up in my nonprofit work. I couldn’t have told my Santa hat story a few years ago, when it happened, because I was afraid of scaring off donors and afraid that my liberal friends would police my tone; but I also couldn’t have told it because I couldn’t quite fit all those terrible feelings into my picture of myself and the world. It wasn’t OK with me to just be upset; it wasn’t OK with me that others might hear the story and think I’d been naive or uncaring; it wasn’t OK with me that the problems I encountered in that moment were so much bigger than me, my actions, and my organization. I needed to only tell hopeful stories because hope and realism couldn’t coexist in my picture of who I was and how I mattered.

Instead of telling these hard stories, we just say, over and over, it’s hard sometimes, but it’s worth it. Over and over we want to appear strong or nonchalant, and hope others can be convinced to join our work. It’s worth it, we say, and we do mean it, even as we’re losing energy, becoming jaded, burning out. We tell the good stories back to ourselves and stuff the bad ones away. Or worse, we tell ourselves we’re too privileged to deserve these stories, that admitting we were hurt, frightened, or surprised by something constitutes some sort of betrayal of someone else’s greater pain or fear.

That is a lie, and we need to tell each other so. And we need to tell these stories. We need our friends to know what we go through. We need our donors to know that we can’t fix people. We need our volunteer recruits to know what they’re getting into.

And we need to know: that our careers don’t have to be made up only of stories with morals. That even the upsetting realities we face are better than the pleasant fictions others dwell in. That the things we encounter have made us better, stronger. That we, as people, matter more than the roles we play in our organizations.

For some of us, the difference between excitement and burnout is as simple as the difference between the stories we’re holding, and the stories we think we’re supposed to tell about ourselves.

May we have the courage to ask someone for the stories in their hands.

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E-mail I just sent to a potential employer


Y’all, I hate applying for jobs. I hate it. There’s something about it, about posturing and spinning and pretending to be important, that I can’t stand. Maybe some deeper underlying psychological issue is at stake here. All I know is, it’s awful.

So, I have real important things happening in my life, and real profound thoughts too, but after about two weeks’ hiatus this is the writing project I’ve worked on for the past hour.

Lyndsey Janelle <lyndseyjanelle[at]gmail.com>
1:44 AM (0 minutes ago)

to commonwealth[at]pavementcoffeehouse.com
Dear Commonwealth:

Today I walked past your store and, having a keen interest in coffeehouses and recently-finished construction projects, looked longingly into the window. Or I tried to, but I was distracted by a fairly small sign that said, “WE’RE HIRING!” It also directed interested parties to “send an email” to this address, which I found to be rather cryptic. What kind of email? Is there a password I am supposed to know and include? I thought about sending a blank email, but I suppose while we’re communicating I’ll tell you why I think you should hire me.
First of all, I can get things done, and I have common sense. So, for instance, (not to criticize necessarily), if you asked me to make sure the world knew you were hiring, I would not print shouty caps on a small piece of paper and tape it in a window. I would at least print shouty caps on a big piece of paper. If nothing else was going on, I might even mount a full-scale advertising campaign by placing an ad on craigslist or using a font that communicated what kinds of people I wanted to hire. But only if I didn’t have better things to do.
That is the second reason you should hire me: I am very efficient. I know when I have better things to do. I know which things are urgent, important, and completely unnecessary. I have found this to be a rare quality in humans – the ability to prioritize, especially under pressure. Perhaps you, too, have trouble finding these kinds of humans.
The third reason you should hire me is that I like being nice to people. I find that I am happier when surrounded by happy people, and so I work proactively to make the people around me happier. Just yesterday I walked down several flights of stairs just to bring my housemate a cup of tea. I would derive unimaginable joy from handing cups of tea to people only feet away for hours at a time. You might think that I am being snarky now. I am not.
Because the fourth reason you should hire me is that I am grossly overqualified, but I still want this job. Having worked in my life at numerous leadership and management positions, creative projects, and important-sounding things, I am now a Master’s student in theology at BU. I want a job that is the opposite of my studies: a job where I do things, concrete things in reality, that are clearly worthwhile. Creating a delicious drink and placing it in the hands of a tired, determined, or celebratory customer fits the bill perfectly. I’d like to be known as the Treat-Bearer.
But the fact that I am overqualified does not disqualify me from possessing a quality level of qualification at barista skills. I make great coffee. I work hard. And, having worked for a year in a food pantry, I am a customer service Hercules. I have wrestled the Cerberus of customers. And I’ve come to appreciate the nice ones more than ever.
Finally, you should hire me because: I am normal-looking at times, but do not worry that I might disturb the urban vibe or get blandness in the coffee; I am also quite capable of cultivating an appropriately quirky appearance. Sadly, I have no tattoos, but I do possess many cardigans, trendy hats, and pairs of glasses. I also have blue eyes and freckles and fancy myself an ideal candidate for some shy plaid-wearing poet boy’s (or girl’s, who’s counting?) unattainable (because they’re so shy) crush. They might buy more coffee as a result.
My resume is attached. Thank you for your time if you’re still reading. I really would, in all sincerity, like to work for Pavement.
All my love,
Lyndsey Graves
PS. I hope I haven’t offended you about the urban vibe. I don’t say any of this as a judgment on your coffeeshop coffeehouse; just making conjectures based on my past encounters with baristas. I’ve honestly never gone inside Pavement. I can’t afford coffee right now. So hire me and share the joy. Thanks.
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