Each person awakes each day with a different number of ‘spoons.’ These ‘spoons’ represent the mental and emotional energy that a person has each day, as well as decision-making capability. It has to do with physical energy as well, but oftentimes we focus too much on tiredness brought about by physical exhaustion and neglects the limits of our other capacities, and ultimately, our ability to be productive, fruitful, and restored.
So each person has a number of spoons. People with chronic illnesses, say, usually have less spoons than someone in good health. People who are going through hard times usually have less capacity, and therefore spoons. Perhaps younger folks have a few more than older folks. There’s no science to it, just a helpful metaphor.
It’s difficult to explain why day to day life here is more tiring than in our home country. It has to do with the fact that everything, even things as simple as crossing the street, takes more attention and effort. As soon as we leave the house each day we’re “on,” and we have to stay “on” until we’re back home.
We take a cab to work each day. This involves crossing a few very busy streets, then hailing down a cab (preferably with a driver who isn’t smoking), a verbal exchange, and attention paid to the route the driver takes, the meter (to see if it’s been tripped to charge us double), and instructions as needed as to where to go and to sometimes re-direct when they start to go the longer (and thus more expensive way). It involves being ‘on’ the whole time. If he’s a nice guy, the meter is working ok, and he can figure out pretty well where we’re going, it takes, say, a spoon get to work. If he’s the one in ten or so drivers who cheat us out of extra money or get upset that we won’t pay them double, and the occasional time (it’s happened 2-3x in about 11 months) where the driver grabs the hubs and won’t let him out of the car until he gives him more money, it takes like 3 spoons. It is a tiring experience that leaves us with less emotional and mental energy to get through the rest of the day.
A normal workday involves several spoons, and sometimes more than we have. Greeting everyone, one by one, as we get to the office, taking 10-20 minutes until we can settle in and get to work: 1 spoon. If one of our co-workers has had some sickness or some difficulty and we talk about it for awhile (which, we are happy to do): another spoon.
Last week our day started talking with one of our refugee co-workers, who shared with us about a tragedy in her family. A family member of hers had to leave the house and his wife was away as well. He’d be gone for half an hour or so. He locked his 6-year-old, 3-year-old, and baby in the apartment. This is extremely and dangerously common in the refugee community here. People have to work, they can’t pay for child care, extended families are scattered all over and so not nearby to offer support, and the only thing people can do is to lock their children inside while they’re away. While he was out, the 6-year-old tried to be helpful and warm up food for the younger sibling. He ended up catching the house on fire. The mother and father came back to their apartment aflame, the eldest child with a broken leg (he jumped out of a window to save himself) and their two youngest children dead.
Obviously this isn’t about me, and I don’t want to be selfish or insensitive about this incident. We’ve prayed for her and given some money for the family and have been broken for several days over hearing about this. It has weighed heavily on us. But it is one of many such incidents and situations we hear about and deal with each month. And for the point of this exegesis, it is another instance of our day-to-day that takes a mental and emotional toll: several spoons.
It’s good to spend spoons on things. We want to spend our time and energy on others. Jesus poured himself out for us like a drink. We’re called to do the same. But nonetheless, expending is, well, expensive (at least in spoons).
Throughout the day there are several interruptions in our work (a spoon for each), usually each week involves an ‘emergency’ for one of us—someone at work giving us a task that we must complete immediately because of their own lack of planning or no regard for other work or things that we might need to do. More spoons. Mama M bringing cases to me to determine who is an emergency case to be put immediately on the cleaning course instead of going on the waiting list. A spoon.
I am an introvert that shares and open office with many loud (and lovely) co-workers who like to take, several chatty breaks throughout the day right across from my desk. Sometimes it’s so loud I can’t think. The louder and longer the chat session, the more spoons that go.
When the internet isn’t working, when the copier is on the fritz again (both weekly or more occurrences), depending on the immediacy of the task I’m doing, and the amount of effort to get one thing printed, takes any number of spoons. Yelling and conflict in the office—whether it be interpersonal with staff, with a refugee and staff, or with an employer—all take a spoon or two. If any of these conflicts are within my department or otherwise involve me, take several spoons.
Getting stopped on the way out to chat and catch up with people we know (which we are-again-very happy to do. People are always worth our spoons!), another spoon. Then there is the end of the day walk to get the taxi, dodging motorbikes and cars, sometimes in 110 degree (or more) heat. More spoons. A taxi home, finally walking in the door. Ah.
But if there is a power cut, or a plumbing issue, or loud neighbors, a phone issue and we need to go to the shop 7 times in one week, or a dog that barks all night and won’t let us sleep, even our safe place where we retreat to to rest and regenerate spoons for the next day, becomes a spoon taker.
The hubs and I have found the spoon metaphor helpful when we look back over the day and week. It helps us identify why we’re so tired on a given day, even when it feels like we may not have done much at all. A stressful taxi ride, an office too loud to get anything done, hearing anther persons really, really tough circumstances, someone you were counting on not showing up to work—all these things may not represent any productivity, but they do represent lost spoons.
In the evenings when the hubs asks after dinner, “What do you want to do tonight?,” and I really cannot cope with another decision in the day, I just say “Outta spoons.” And he understands. It’s helped us identify why our day to day here is so much more tiring than in our home countries. Why we don’t go out and do as much. Why recreational activities take as much effort as they restore. Why, most weekends, we feel the need to hide away.
Because of this, rest is extremely important. If you’re constantly burning through your spoons and not replenishing them, you end up in spoon deficit: burnout.
Usually when you’re out of spoons at the end of the day, the only rest that is possible is ‘crashing’ rest. The rest that requires little effort or decision and generally, ideally, some sort of mental escape. TV, playing a game, surfing the internet. Vegging out. Rest that requires no energy and acts as a comedown.
After really long or really hard days we have these evenings. Where we’ve run out of spoons, can’t cope with any more decisions, and crash.
Crashing rest is necessary at times. But it’s just that. A crash, a come down. It is not the rest that rejuvenates–the life-giving kind.
It’s important to take the crash rest when you need it. But it’s also very important to not only be getting crash rest. Productive rest is also important. The restorative kind. The kind that does take some measure of effort, but that also restores your heart and mind. Productive rest rejuvenates my ability to energized, present, and passionate. It helps me restore so we can make plans for the next week, month, year. You need extra spoons to do stuff like that.
Reviving rest for us usually takes the forms of running, reading, writing. Cooking, painting, making. Depending on our context, it also includes things like gardening, going to farmer’s markets, museums, and dates. It includes quality time with loved ones, good conversations. Things that re-center and are life giving and are the inhale again after the preceding exhale.
We’ve found if we get the crashing rest in (when needed) but don’t make it to restorative rest, that we’re behind already and lagging in the next week. We’ve found that if we go too long without making space for ourselves to be creative and productive (in a non-work context) that we really struggle in our work life and even in overall health.
Busyness for it’s own sake is often unproductive, as it doesn’t leave room for contemplation, life-giving rest, and the rejuvenation it brings.
Walter Brueggemann (who you’ll know I’m fond of, if you read this blog often), talks about this rejuvenational rest, the Sabbath rest if you will, in relationship to fruitfulness—productivity. A thing that most of us strive for, to some degree or other, in life.
Matthew 3:10 says that “every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Paul talked about the fruits we produce (fruitfulness) as well. In Galatians 5 he talks about bad fruits of the flesh. Stuff like idolatry, fits of anger, impurity. The good fruits are the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, self-control.
What if being productive, being fruitful, included growing in these good things?
Walter writes in his book “Sabbath as Resistance”: “The God who gave the blessing and invited fruitfulness is the Lord of the Sabbath. It requires Sabbath to bear the fruits of God’s kingdom. Those who refuse Sabbath produce only sour grapes, the grapes of wrath and violence and envy and, finally, death. Sabbath is a refusal of the grapes of wrath, and embrace of good fruits of life and joy, of praise and shalom.”
Spoon theory has helped the hubs and I in dealing with the guilt we might feel on the days and weeks that we feel utterly and completely exhausted, but haven’t actually been able to accomplish much at work.
We’re there, of course, for the people more than the work. But the people are the work, the work is serving people. And in such an intensive, multi-cultural environment, things like patience and peace and kindness and self-control are pretty dang important. So we take inventory of our spoons, of how we’re coping, and we don’t feel guilty about a long weekend or taking an extra day when we really need it. Life here is hard and if we want to keep having the capacity to love people well we need spoons, we need rest, we need to rejuvenate so that the fruit we produce will be good fruit, and not the tiny, green mangoes that are falling off the tree next to our balcony long before they ripen, because the tree has been untended for so long.