Dilbert’s Vision for How Not to Handle Burnout! (Prelude to Reformational Teaching & Learning)

Meet Scott Adam’s character Burt Nount from the Dilbert cartoons:

DILBERT © Scott Adams. Used By permission of ANDREWS MCMEEL SYNDICATION. All rights reserved.

Over the past two decades, I’ve often been struck by how well Scott Adams’ satirical insights about the corporate world also reflect issues about human nature and relate disturbingly well to public education challenges. (Among other influences, perhaps some of this is attributable to the trend in public school districts where superintendents officially received the title of CEO?)

In an attempt to not become like Burt Nount, I’ve been wrestling with the issue of self-care. My skeptical and sometimes cynical sensibilities often leave me questioning the recommendations for self-care from well-meaning school leaders. There’s something about the very notion that seems to just aggravate rather than alleviate the mental, social, and spiritual problems that self-care recommendations try to address.

My very first blog for this site was about cognitive psychology strategies. I’ve had many times when I’ve wanted to repent over and revise those posts, thinking that those approaches just don’t get to the core problems. Such strategies are embedded in most self-care resources that I encounter these days. Sometimes, they actually help a little. But there are larger problems lurking behind our burnout, anxiety, depression, and conflict. Those larger issues are deeply spiritual.

In “The Gospel is Not Self-Care: Overcoming Burnout,” Matt Metevelis captures much of the spiritual limitations about common self-care advice:

“Put theologically, our usual hope is that ‘burnout’ is some kind of transgression against the law that more of the law can solve. If I can somehow better manage myself by subtracting something here or adding another thing there, then life and health will flow as sure as a differential equation. ‘Burnout’ and work weariness become less a natural condition of human labor (‘the sweat of our brows’) and more an error to be corrected by prioritization and optimization. Care becomes another corporate strategic plan for the self. Worn from work? Work harder to take care of yourself! The law can’t seem to try and fix things without doubling down. It can’t address failure without first piling on an extra serving of guilt.”

Metevelis’ concern about treating burnout as something that more of the law can solve represents a critique of us trying to solve a deeply spiritual problem with secular self-effort strategies. This is the spot where the satirically futile world of Dilbert (and the similar personal and public experiences of education) converges with the concerns of the reformation.

Martin Luther was terrorized by guilt and various self-care strategies during his time. These self-care strategies were meant to address issues of guilt, anxiety, depression, and spiritual exhaustion. Eventually, Luther saw that the leading institution and the leaders of the corporate body (the Church) were neglecting the source of true help: grace beyond human effort. Instead, leaders focused on indulgences to help one payoff guilty and anxious feelings while helping to raise money to construct church buildings.

Luther took his commentary about indulgences and other unhelpful practices of the time and nailed his 95 Theses up on a door in Wittenberg. (With the help of the printing press, some of his contemporaries made plenty of copies for others to read privately–the social media of the time?) Too often, I let Martin Luther and John Calvin play the role of interesting and influential historical figures, but they are packing many powerful insights about reality, spirituality, society, and mental health. The insights of the Protestant Reformers have grace-powered potential for personal and public flourishing as well as for recovery from burnout. None of this is to say that they were perfect. We also need to discuss different meanings of “secular” to work out more of the public application of such grace-powered insights.

For personal consideration, the core of Metevelis’ better approach to burnout reflects Reformation wisdom:

“The gospel is not ‘self-care.’ The gospel is care, period. The gospel is healing, freedom, life, and hope. And we all have trouble perceiving our need for it, asking for it, and accepting it. As creatures, we are incapable of caring for ourselves. Only when an outside word comes to us and acknowledges our weakness can we even begin the journey of restoration. ‘Burnt out’ candles do not relight themselves.”

As a society, we’ve marginalized the much-needed resources of the gospel that Metervelis is pointing to, and both the marginalizing and the beneficial applications will need further discussion.

Meanwhile, here’s a lighter look at the equivalent of 95 or so sneezes in a Dilbertian context. (Adams had developed “Sneezing Alice” long before COVID.)

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