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Burnout, Shavuot and Living with Purpose

June 6, 2019 | by Rabbi Benjamin Blech

Pursue meaning, not happiness.

It’s official. Last week the World Health Organization just concluded that the official compendium of diseases needs to include one more common contemporary disease under its list of sicknesses to be taken seriously by the medical profession.

Burnout has been upgraded from a “state of exhaustion” to a “syndrome” – which means that a truly significant number of people are not just sick of their jobs and sick of their lives; they are sick in the literal sense, ill mentally, emotionally and physically to the extent that their condition requires professional attention.

Perhaps this new phenomenon can shed on a famous biblical story, a seminal event in the life of Moses which may have much greater meaning than commonly understood at first reading.

Moses' first encounter with God took place at a bush. Bush in Hebrew is called sneh. Commentators claim that very spot would be the location for the giving of the 10 Commandments. From the word sneh comes the word Sinai. The holiday of Shavuot and the giving of the Torah are inextricably linked with the scene of the miracle shown to Moses. A bush burning with fire was strangely not consumed.

Superficially it was simply the scene of a miracle. It was God demonstrating his supernatural power. It was the prelude to God asking Moses to assume the heavy burden of leadership. Yet the question begs to be asked: Could not God have performed a more amazing feat than this? Surely there must’ve been some greater meaning to this particular miracle. Indeed, the specific nature of the miracle must have also been a sign and a message.

Having a life filled with meaning and purpose, is the best way to never suffer from burnout.

Permit me to suggest that God was giving Moses a powerful answer to the very same problem currently identified as key to contemporary culture. A bush was burning – yet it was not consumed. So too, God assured Moses, doing God’s will, having a life filled with meaning and purpose, is the best way to never suffer from burnout.

The “burning bush” is not so much the story of a miracle as it is a vivid depiction of the miracle of lives filled with fiery passion for a greater cause.

Burnout, psychologists tell us, is apathy, akin to the feeling that life has no meaning. There is a crisis of purpose in our world today. People feel overwhelmed, lonely, and unfulfilled. In chasing the “good life,” they have sacrificed their relationships, their health, and, at the end of the day, still find themselves with lives and work that bring them little joy and meaning. Depression is on the rise and many people can’t cope with the pace of change brought on by technological, cultural, and social transformations. Some turn to drugs and other forms of avoidance, some put on a happy face to mask the issues, while others simply withdraw and postpone living a full life. Many people feel like they are “prisoners” in their own lives.

Viktor Frankl, the world-renowned psychiatrist, existential philosopher, and author of the classic bestseller, Man’s Search for Meaning, described it brilliantly. People today, he said, are living in an existential vacuum. Vacuums need content - and the content must be purpose.

In The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters Emily Esfahani Smith reviewed hundreds of empirical papers from the growing body of research on meaningfulness and found that the defining features of a meaningful life are connecting and contributing to something beyond the self. Meaningful activities generate positive emotions and deepen social connections, both of which increase our satisfaction with life. Research shows that focusing on happiness in life is actually self-defeating. Helen Keller put it well: “Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.”

The most motivating choices are ones that align with our “why” and our purpose. Christine L. Carter Ph.D., a sociologist and happiness expert at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, and author of The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Work and Home explains:

“Compelling research indicates that the pursuit of happiness – when our definition of happiness is synonymous with pleasure and easy gratification – won’t ultimately bring us deeper feelings of fulfillment; it won’t allow us to live in our sweet spot. Although we claim that the “pursuit of happiness” is our inalienable right and the primary driver of the human race, we humans do better pursuing fulfillment and meaning – creating lives that generate the feeling that we matter.”

In her research, Iris Mauss, a social psychologist at U.C. Berkeley who studies the possible negative consequences of seeking happiness, found that people who place a great value on being happy actually have more mental health problems, including, sadly enough, depression. The more value you place on your own happiness, the more likely you are to feel lonely. “Wanting to be happy can make you less happy. If you explicitly and purposely focus on happiness, that appears to have a self-defeating quality. Don’t spend your valuable time seeking your own happiness. You will end up feeling more shallow than you can ever imagine. Pursuing meaning, however, makes you feel good about yourself, because you are pursuing something bigger than yourself. Something that makes you come alive.”

The holiday of Shavuot recalls the single most important moment in of all of human history. At Sinai we were given a call to make our lives filled with meaning. We were given the commandment that our lives must have purpose – and the pursuit of that purpose would ensure far greater joy than the pursuit of happiness.

Sinai reinforced the message of the sneh, the burning bush. In making our lives meaningful we have found the divine response to the dreaded disease of burnout.

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