There I floated on my bright yellow raft, not too far away from the dock. It was the first morning of our summer lake vacation and was starting to warm up into one of those typical late July hot southern days. But instead of feeling the peace of being on the water and the relaxation of being on vacation, I unintentionally brought something else along with me. A big, nasty ball of feelings that I had slowly and gradually crunched up in the pit of my stomach: bewilderment, anger, sadness, and more.
Yep, I made the critical error of bringing my job – and the frustrations of the last few weeks – along with me. I wager that every single person who works inside a nonprofit wrestles with an existential crisis at times. I was wrestling with the question of whether anything I was doing in my work really mattered. So there I floated, eventually coming to a point where the constant refrain in my head was, “…I could so care less.” I had gotten to a point where I was starting to find easy solace in apathy.
Eventually, the slow ebb and flow of the water did its job and I felt my muscles and mind start to relax. The sounds of the birds and the cold beer in my hand led me toward some much needed inner solitude. I questioned how I had arrived at this place where “Screw it all!” was an acceptable landing spot.
I needed to confront head-on the confusion of experiencing this apathy in work that I deeply enjoyed and was exceptionally good at for an organization in which I believed in its mission. What the hell was going on that would make me accept the possibility of caring less?
Then, I recalled something a trusted mentor told me not long ago. I didn’t actually want to care less. My problem was that I was caught in a pernicious trap of caring too much. How is caring too much a bad thing? For me, caring about the outcome of every single experience, every single event, every single opinion in my workplace was exhausting. Further, it only led to disappointment and cynicism when those outcomes failed to match up with my expectations. It was a sure-fire road to burnout and I was on the express bus.
Fortunately, I was able to pause. I quieted the thoughts about how I should care less or care more. Instead, I started to reflect on how to be more intentional as to what I truly do care about.
Not everything is worth the battle or engaging in the fire drill. We don’t need to actively participate in everyone’s drama. So many things exist far outside our control. However, what we can control is our thoughts and reactions to the daily dramas. When we get clear about our values and goals, we can make better choices about how we want to matter.
Later that evening, I sat on the deck overlooking the lake and spent time with the person I am at my core. I took some time to recall my values and why I returned to the nonprofit world. I sketched out the big picture goals for my work. Anything I could use to reorient me toward giving my best effort to my organization as well as my career. Shortly afterward, I let go a great sigh of relief and settled into enjoying the next few days of special quality time with my family.
By the end of the vacation, I left the lake with what I call my Roadmap for Intentional Caring.
For those of us working in nonprofits (or really any occupation where we know our work matters), the temptation to care too much is always there. And the relative “safety” of trying to not care at all is always there, as well. It’s locating the sweet spot in the middle and being able to get back there to intentional caring when we swing toward either end of the spectrum.
We passionate nonprofiteers tend to be a curious lot who strive to improve ourselves. However, it’s also not always about learning about how to write a better grant or develop a better campaign or host a better event. Sometimes it’s about learning how to look after ourselves so we can continue giving our best and being of use in this world that still clearly needs us to care.