“Why Haven’t You Burnt Out?” By Dr Keith White.

We are blessed at Mill Grove in having those who come to stay with us as part of a formal or informal stage in their education or professional development.  Reflecting on those who have done this I now realise that they have come from many different parts of the world (including USA, Europe, Africa, Malaysia, The Philippines) and from a wide range of cultural backgrounds and learning environments (social work, children’s ministry, residential care, community development, psychology, and ministerial sabbaticals and training, to name but a few off the top of my head).

When chatting (or “doing supervision” if you would prefer it) with one who has been with us for three weeks this September, she asked the question at the head of this piece.  I enquired where it had come from in terms of her observations and experience at Mill Grove.  The way she saw it was that there were children and families who had serious and chronic problems living here all the time, some for many years.  We were involved with them pretty much continuously, without “shifts” and the like.  So how come that it didn’t all become overwhelming at times?  What were the ways in which, the resources because of which, we were able to cope?

It was a fair question and set me thinking.  This article is a response to it.  First it is important to say (as I did to her) that there were times when I was a trainee social worker in Edinburgh in the 1970s when I felt that I might go under.  The cases that I was allocated were all to do with rent arrears and eviction with just about every other personal problem thrown in.  That experience stayed with me as I moved into Mill Grove with Ruth and our family.  And it came back strongly when early on I found things beginning to get on top of me.  So I was able to explain that burn-out was not just a theoretical concept that affected other people in different situations.  I knew from personal experience what she meant.

It is nevertheless the case that Ruth and I have survived over a period of forty years engagement with the community of Mill Grove, and thirty years living as part of that residential community.  So why might that be?  One factor has been the presence of a consultant therapist for almost all of that time.  (There have been three since the 1970s: one moved to the USA; the second retired; and we are now supported by the third.)  When researching children’s homes in Edinburgh and Hull (between 1969 and 1973) I quickly realised that the house-parents (as they were called then) were usually under relentless pressure that adversely affected each of them and their marriage relationships.  The importance of regular support was impressed upon me.  And the case for it cannot be overstated.  To have a predictable and reliable place where every issue and feeling can be shared is vital for sanity let alone well-being.  It is perhaps close to “being held in a healthy mind”.

Another factor is the support that we have had from others, notably parents, family, trustees, and friends.  This has happened in any number of ways direct and indirect.  But when the screws are on it can be a make or break to have those to whom you can turn, and on whom you can rely.  It is simply not possible in my experience to function independently of resourceful friends.  One such friend was Bob Holman (who coined the very phrase, “resourceful friend”!).  It was a comfort and joy to know that he was always interested and willing to listen to my questions and descriptions of my difficulties without ever becoming remotely anxious or seeming to be phased by anything I shared with him.

Then there is the matter of boundaries, patterns, rhythms of life.  Early on I came to discover that Benedict had seen into the heart of community living, and so I took his basic rule of life as a guide.  And this was part of a process of learning during which I came to learn from a whole range of residential settings, psychiatric, religious, artistic, social and political.  How did Jean Vanier avoid burn-out, I often wondered (after that is, the time of his well-documented failure in the early days)?  And what about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Victor Frankl, Alexander Solzhenitsyn in their harsh confinements?  All were acutely aware of boundaries of every sort, ideological and practical, personal and group, and they were strong in maintaining what they saw as necessary and healthy ways of living.

Another aspect is my engagement with other aspects of life, the wider world.  When starting out at Mill Grove one of the senior trustees, a GP, advised me to make sure that I always had interests and commitments outside the residential community.  This proved inestimably wise.  And I have kept his advice to this very day.  Without regular, lively, fresh interaction with the world outside a residential community things, including people and feelings, readily tend to get out of proportion and become unduly negative.  The result, on reflection has been a cornucopia of different interests, partnerships, projects and initiatives from singing in choirs, joining professional associations, sailing, climbing, playing chess, writing books, writing and producing plays, and so much more.  Such engagement helps a sense of perspective when others in the community may be losing theirs.

As this list lengthens it dawns on me that I am probably not the best person to answer such a question.  No doubt others can see much more clearly than me the resources that have sustained me over the years.  No doubt they would start with Ruth, my wife, whose inner tranquillity and resources are second to none in my whole experience.  But I guess they would also refer to my personal faith.  As a committed and trusting follower of Jesus, I have often wondered how those without such a faith find sustenance, hope, grace and peace in the often harsh, real world.  That many do, I have come to realise, but I still fail to see how they do it.  Perhaps there are other names for what sustains them, and gives them the hope to continue when all seems bleak, even hopeless in micro and macro worlds.  When, as a former colleague of mine, a psycho-therapist, said “Your child care theories are all in smithereens!”

There is no doubt a lot more to it than what I have just written, and I begin to feel that I have only begun to scratch the surface.  But let me round this reflection off by connecting it with what I am doing at this very moment.  For most of my life I have enjoyed writing, and it has been my joy to complete hundreds of articles and papers, to write fifty years’ worth of sermons, and to author and edit a number of books.  They are about quite different subjects (from theology and sociology to art and history), but there is a thread running through many of them.  And this thread has to do with reflecting on residential care, therapeutic communities, intra-personal development and group dynamics.

This is how I process things.  It so happens that I am currently reading À la Recherche du Temps Perdu by Marcel Proust.  If you don’t know it, then it is so vast that I would never dare to recommend it to anyone, but if you are familiar with it, then you will know that this massive work is an extraordinary and extended reflection on his life, feelings, thoughts, relationships, and context set in the world of nature and culture.  Writing pieces for The Care Journal, formerly Children Webmag, is for me a therapeutic experience which allows me to chew over issues, many of them very challenging, and some barely understood.  So it is that this piece is not only an attempted answer to the question posed about burn-out, but part of the very process by which burn-out may have been prevented.  Whether it is worth reading is a completely different matter!




Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.