Decades ago, I was burned out. It was only weeks before a planned semester sabbatical that I’d been looking forward to. I had become disappointed in my university, my colleagues, and myself. I was deeply discouraged. I wondered why I was working so hard for students and a school that didn’t seem to appreciate my efforts.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was experiencing the arc of professional disenchantment. As Christian psychiatrist Paul Tournier puts it, we “began full of enthusiasm, treating [our] work as a fascinating adventure. And then gradually, imperceptibly, as a result of disappointments, through the deadening effect of routine, even without . . . realizing why, it became a burden, just a duty to be performed, a habit, a prison rather than an adventure.”1 My burden included anxiety and depression. Previously excited to be a professor at a Christian institution, I found myself caught in a downward spiral.
I also sensed that I was disappointing my students. I felt shame, especially when I read my course evaluations. In my overly sensitive emotional state, even just a handful of negative comments wounded me.
My semester off became a time of rest and reflection as well as study. I needed to put my life back together. I sought a psychiatrist and therapist. My new psychiatrist mentioned that most of his clients in higher education had been going through similar despondency. Knowing that I was not alone, and with professional help, I found extra courage to begin again.
During my much-needed sabbatical, I noted three insights that have helped me considerably in subsequent years.
First, I realized that each year, semester, course, and class session is a time to begin again. We can reflect on how we have done in the past and what we might do differently in the future, thanking God for every good gain and recommit ourselves to moving ahead with greater faith, skill, and virtue. In this sense, the recurring rhythms of the academic calendar can be great blessings—almost like the church year with its opportunities for self-examination, recommitment, and renewal.
Second, I discovered that I was being too hard on myself. I was seeking earthly perfection rather than realistic excellence, thereby repeatedly disappointing myself in spite of my successes with particular students and courses. For me, perfectionism and workaholism had become real problems, leading me to become overly self-critical and impatient. Trying to do everything perfectly, I was missing the satisfaction of doing common things in an uncommon manner, God helping me.
My disappointment would strike even before the start of each semester. I love sitting down with a cup of coffee and a blank pad of paper to begin planning a new course, from the topics to readings, and from lecture-discussions to projects and papers. As the semester approaches, however, my enthusiasm wanes. I feel the pressure of time, such as a semester or quarter with a limited number of class meetings. Possible textbooks seem uninspiring and expensive. Some of the great ideas I had for student assignments suddenly seem like enormous grading burdens. I get discouraged before I even begin teaching again!
Third, I concluded that I need one or two colleagues with whom I can be fully transparent about the ups and downs of my servant teaching. In other words, I need the stability of love and acceptance amid the highs and lows of the academy. I am lost if I don’t have the kind of professional community that transcends the arc of professional disenchantment. My church community is essential, but I also need faithful, loving colleagues who care about me.
Unless we see each term as a new beginning to faithful rather than perfect work, we can mistakenly impose upon ourselves unrealistic expectations flowing from our genuine desire to love God and our students. Every time we begin again, we have the wonderful opportunity to pursue excellence within our means, with plenty of compassion toward ourselves.
We all have to fend off the arc of professional disenchantment by beginning each initiative—every year, term, and class meeting—with realistic expectations. Then we have the emotional-spiritual as well as professional resources to do common and everyday things in an uncommon manner, God helping us.