The Hidden Invitation of Burnout

How to practice “the antidote to exhaustion” when rest isn’t enough

Ten years ago I crossed the finish line of my first and only marathon. I said a quick ‘hi’ to some friends waiting there for me, then promptly walked away and broke down in tears.

It wasn’t just the distance or exhaustion. 

That’s me in the middle, post-breakdown, with a couple friends who also ran.

The truth was that the whole lifestyle I’d been living wasn’t working anymore. It had already pushed me into painful bouts of depression and anxiety. 

But I didn’t know a better way.

I’d take weekend retreats to rest and rejuvenate. But when I woke up Monday morning back in my real life I felt just as exhausted as before I left.

So I’d spent the past two years white knuckling, trying to hold it all together. But it was like trying to keep falling leaves from falling. And the more it didn’t work, the more hopeless I felt.

The fatigue of the marathon just stripped away the defenses I used to conceal it all. 

I hadn’t considered it until writing this, but I think my breakdown after the race was a turning point for me. Because even though I couldn’t have said it at the time, two important truths I’d been fighting against finally landed in my body:

I was profoundly burnt out. And something needed to change.

“Has anyone seen David?” – When Rest Isn’t Enough to Cure Your Exhaustion

Years later I heard the poet David Whyte talk about his own season of burnout. Something a friend told him became his turning point.

This was back before he made his living as a poet, when he was busy and stressed working for a nonprofit. One day he barged into the beginning of a meeting and asked loudly, “Has anyone seen David?”

There was a curious silence, then everyone started laughing.

He was the only person in the office named David, so in essence he’d just demanded to see himself.

He laughed along with them but inside he was humiliated. In that moment he felt a huge weight of exhaustion settle in his body.

Later that evening he was sharing a bottle of wine with his wise friend, Brother David Steindl-Rast. After telling the story of his day, Whyte addressed his friend the way you might address a prophet or an oracle:

“Tell me about exhaustion,” he said.

Brother David looked at him for a moment then said, “You know that the antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest.”

Whyte repeated that to himself—the antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest—then asked, “What is it then?”

Brother David answered, “The antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness.”

For years Whyte had been splitting his energies between the work that supported him and the work he longed to do. But in that conversation he realized the season of his life had turned. Some central part of himself had chosen sides. It had planted itself firmly in the uncertain future of his longing.

His exhaustion wasn’t just from being busy. It was from busying himself with work that his heart had already moved on from.

So the next day he started carefully restructuring his life to make more room for his poetry. He worked for a year to lay the foundation for his future life.

Then finally, when he had the mix of courage, faith, and evidence that his new life would hold him, he jumped.

The Invitation Into Wholeheartedness

My experience of burnout is that it’s often driven by this dynamic: The season of your life has shifted, but your daily circumstances of work and commitments haven’t caught up.

Usually this is at least partly because we resist the change that’s happening.

For Whyte, it was holding on to the relative safety of his job while a new springtime was calling him to risk himself.

For me after the marathon, it was trying to hold together the identity of my early adulthood, even as fall kept showing me it was time to let it crumble.

Both led to deep exhaustion and burnout. But they also held an invitation. 

The invitation comes from your longing, which always goes ahead of you into the new season. It calls back to you from just over the horizon of your present circumstances.

In my experience it makes no promises. It’s not inviting you into a fully formed life that’s magically waiting for you to arrive. In fact, it’s often calling you into deep uncertainty—the very uncertainty you’re probably trying to avoid by staying where you are.

But one way to think about wholeheartedness is that there are two sides to your heart. There’s the metaphorical side of love and longing. And there’s the physical side, pumping away, powering the actions of your days.

Burnout can be a signal that it’s time to bring those two sides into alignment. To shift your daily actions into harmony with your longings. To become wholehearted.

How to Get There from Here

This doesn’t mean you need to immediately blow up your life to go chasing your bliss.

After the marathon I spent the next 11 months preparing for a change. For me this meant getting my business ready to go on without me. Arranging to move across the world. Saying goodbye to my friends in the place I’d been living.

It was a tough, imperfect process. And what waited for me was a long winter with no clear path coming out the other side.

But slowly in the years since, I’ve brought the actions of my days into better alignment with the invitations of my longing. 

Not perfectly. But progressively.

Because wholeheartedness is not a destination you can settle in. The seasons of your life keep changing. Your longing keeps running out ahead of you, calling you into new and greater uncertainties.

The way to avoid burnout is to stay attentive to that constantly shifting calling.

So if you find yourself burnt out, by all means rest. Sometimes profound rest is a necessary part of the shift that needs to happen. But also ask yourself: “What seasonal change is trying to get my attention? What is my longing calling me towards?”

Then take the small, practical, uncertain steps to becoming more wholehearted.

If you ever feel stuck or could use some accompaniment on the journey, you’re far from alone. I’ve spent the past few years coaching people through this process towards wholeness.

Sometimes all you need is a good question and a compassionate space to answer it, and you can overhear yourself say exactly what you’ve been longing to know.

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