New Year, Same Boat?

Posted 01.12.2021

Over the weekend, I saw a Tweet from preventive medicine doctor, James Hamblin that read, “This concludes the first week of 2021.”

Following a week of record COVID deaths and a deadly riot in the halls of the U.S. Capitol, Hamblin succinctly summed up the way a lot of us feel. It’s a new year but it feels like we’re in the same boat as we were a few weeks ago when it was still 2020.

It’s natural to hope that things are going to be immediately better as the calendar turns from one year to the next but, of course, the trends that were already in play didn’t magically evaporate at midnight, December 31. We’re all still dealing with what we were dealing with last year and will be for some undetermined amount of time going forward.

As a good friend and colleague pointed out to me early last week, what we’re feeling right now isn’t so much fatigue as it is depletion. She shared with her team and me an excellent blog post from last year from leadership coach and author David Lapin in which he defined the difference between the two.

Fatigue, Lapin wrote, applies to your body and your mind. Depletion, on the other hand, deals more with your emotional and spiritual state. Fatigue is usually the precursor to depletion. As I had my closing conversations with clients and friends at the end of 2020, I talked with a lot of people who were both fatigued and depleted. And, as I’m checking in with everyone again this month, things really aren’t any different for them. After the events at the Capitol last week, the levels of depletion are likely deeper for most.

So, since we’re almost certainly going to be in our current boat a while longer, what do we do about it? Lapin points out that while the antidote for fatigue is relaxation, overcoming depletion calls for restoration. Relaxation is about non-doing. Restoration is about doing different things. Lapin suggests restorative activities like reading something beautiful or inspirational, immersing yourself in art or music, walking in nature or connecting with friends or family members in what I like to call transformational engagement.

That’s a good list. I recommend doing any or all of those things if you’re feeling depleted. I’d also suggest that while it’s a good list, it’s incomplete. Activities of self-care can restore your emotional and spiritual energy for a time. For the restoration to go deeper and have a lasting impact, I believe the activities need to move beyond self-care to consciously and actively caring for others.

One way to think about and act on this idea is to consider the Jewish tradition of tikkun olam. As explained in a Wikipedia entry, tikkun olam translates from Hebrew as the repair of the world and is “the idea that Jews bear responsibility not only for their own moral, spiritual, and material welfare, but also for the welfare of society at large.” I’ve read it explained elsewhere as the concept of leaving your community a better place than you found it.

I’m not Jewish but the concept of tikkun olam has spoken to me for many years now and probably never more so than today. Serving others, I think, is the ultimate act of self-restoration. In my own life, I’ve found that simple acts of service to people who can use the help energize my spirit in much longer duration ways than listening to a beautiful piece of music ever could. The music is wonderful but when it’s over, it’s over. The impact of the service, however, endures and as it lifts my spirit encourages me to do more. It’s like a positive addiction.

So, yes, it’s a new year and we’re pretty much in the same boat as last year. As leaders, we need to keep the boat afloat. If that’s all we do, though, the fatigue and depletion are going to get us. To counteract that, let’s all adopt the idea of tikkun olam this year. We’ll help others and, in the process, restore our spirit while we’re building a better boat.

Next Monday, Martin Luther King Day in the United States, is a designated National Day of Service. What better time to start building a new and better boat?

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