Written By Leslie Koh, Singapore
I knew something was wrong the moment I started kicking the boxes below my desk.
I’m normally a quiet, self-restrained person (no, really), but that day, something in me just snapped. On the phone, the caller’s tone and instructions rubbed me the wrong way, and I simply lost it. Something in me stopped me from yelling back, but my legs went on their own journey of anger-venting, and I started flailing at the cardboard boxes that I usually stacked beneath my desk to rest my feet.
You can imagine the scene, then. Usually quiet guy, gripping the phone handset with white, shaking knuckles, saying, “Okay, okay, got it, will do”, in the calmest and most deliberate of voices—while below the desk, loud crunching from furious feet driving into said cardboard boxes. Around him, the shocked faces of colleagues, wondering what had just happened.
The next week, I handed in my resignation. Nine years of journalism, check. One career over, check.
It wasn’t the shame or embarrassment; I had apologized soon after to my boss for my “outburst”, and she had accepted it. It was the knowledge that I was burnt out, and the realization that no matter how good the money was or how much potential the job held, I had reached the point where if I were to continue, I would do my mental health some serious harm.
As it was, I had been feeling more and more exhausted for many months, and always wanting to sleep in; it was as if I didn’t want to wake up to reality. The usually long hours in newsroom were taking their toll, and it had been harder for me because some of the tasks—interviewing, for instance—were well out of my comfort zone. I had heard that sleeplessness as well as an inability to wake up were both possible signs of depression, and I wondered if it was happening to me. My work was also going downhill: I was turning in work without caring if it met the minimum standard, and often ignoring instructions from supervisors. Once, assigned to attend an event, I borrowed my parents’ car and drove round aimlessly for two hours instead. (No one found out, as I still managed to get the information required anyway.)
The resignation brought great relief.
Finally, I could stop dragging myself out of bed every morning to face reality. I could stop ending every weekend with great dread over the coming work week. I could stop forcing myself to go through those long hours in office, hating every piece of work that came to me. I could stop those constant fantasies of becoming rich overnight just so that I would no longer need a job. (Or, as was more often the case, fantasies of the office burning down overnight so I wouldn’t have to report for work the next morning.)
It wasn’t always this way, of course. I had gone into the job with the usual enthusiasm of a greenhorn, but somehow, had become jaded over the years as the long hours and constant stress took their toll. Many colleagues thrived on it, but I felt overwhelmed.
Still, it wasn’t an easy decision. At the back of my mind, two main thoughts remained.
One was, “Am I weak? Am I taking the easy way out?” Younger generations have often been called the Strawberry Generation (you know, bruises easily), and it seems I was fulfilling the criticism. “Why, the older generations worked for 40 years without a day off, and they didn’t complain. You’ve not reached even 10 years, and you’re burnt out?”
The other was, “Is this God’s will?” Was I giving up before God could shape and transform me into a better person? Was I running away from His discipline?
To be honest, I still haven’t answered these questions fully today. Perhaps I was not only suffering from a burnout, but was also going through a Quarter-Life Crisis as I tried to figure out my career, my aims in life, and what meaning I ascribed to my work.
Having gone through what I think is a burnout, however, I’d like to say this: It doesn’t matter what others think of you. If you’re miserable and depressed, and your body is falling apart, no job is worth it. Sure, there’s a time to hang on, to persist, to fight back. But all of us have different limits. Don’t compare yourself to others, because each of us has a unique journey. One person may think it takes guts to keep going, while another person may figure it takes wisdom to give up.
Whatever others may have thought of my decision, I can say this with certainty: I could see God’s hand in everything that happened. There was more than a whiff of divine intervention in the securing of my next job. I had applied for one that seemed interesting and more importantly, appeared to promise a peaceful time. When no answer came, I tried applying again. While waiting, a chance encounter with someone—who just happened to be working in that same department—led to a cut-through-the-red-tape interview with her boss. The job offer came soon after.
The very fact that I had no problem adjusting to a new job soon after quitting seemed to suggest that I simply needed a break. Just being able to take a couple of months off work, and being able to move to something else that involved saner work hours and less stress seemed to make all the difference.
My burnout and the “kickboxing” incident are certainly not things I would want to experience again. I’m not proud of my response. But on hindsight, I can see how they formed part of my journey of self-discovery, and of faith. Were they good in themselves? No. Did God allow them to happen? I believe so!
Going through the burnout, I learned to recognize my own limits. Yes, you could accuse me of having pathetic limits and lacking resilience. But hey, these are my limits. Having been pushed past my limits once, I now have a better idea of how much I can take, and how much I can’t. This knowledge has enabled to make better decisions in life since. In subsequent job moves, I found I had a better handle on what I was prepared to do, and what I couldn’t stand doing. The experience has been invaluable.
I also learned to trust in God’s will and hand in my life. Years later, I would see Him use the incident to shape future decisions about my career. But more importantly, I learned to see that He is not an uncaring, inflexible God who has a fixed, non-negotiable plan that we can fall out of if we don’t make the right decisions. Yes, we need to seek His will and understand how He might want us to act or decide in a given situation. But He is a creative God who gives us the freedom to choose while engaging His will with our lives. If we put His law, interests, and ways before our own, He will give us the desires of our heart (Psalm 37:4).
Psalm 37 also reminds us to commit our way to the Lord and trust Him (v. 5), and to be still before Him and wait patiently for Him to unfold His will (v. 7). We have the assurance that our good and loving God will do what is best for us—even if we might not see it as such at the time.
The Lord makes firm the steps
of the one who delights in him;
though he may stumble, he will not fall,
for the Lord upholds him with his hand.