Burn Out or Sell Out

Putting one of DC’s biggest lies to the test.

As we pass deeper into the new year, I have been trying to focus on rest for many reasons. It seems like rest is always in short supply when you are in politics, especially in DC. One reason is the city’s cynicism, which often leaves people with no space for rest.

Two of the most cynically abused phrases you will ever hear in DC point to this: “Leaving to spend time with my family,” and, “It’s an honor to be working here”.

“Spending Time With My Family”

High-level political jobs almost always require dramatic sacrifices of time and energy. Few people enter into those jobs without some understanding of that requirement, and no one is in them very long without grasping it. That is what makes it especially cynical when long-time politicians and others trot out this excuse after years of jobs in which they barely saw their families. While it is occasionally an honest sentiment, what most people in DC read is “due to my firing/crime/scandal, I am being forced to spend more time with my family so you will not ask me anymore questions about this”.

“It’s An Honor To Work Here”

The phrase “It’s an honor to work here” is also painfully cynical in its use precisely because it is true. It is an honor to serve, but my experience is that the phrase is most often wielded by senior or empowered staffers trying to cajole young junior staff into working longer hours for less money or into putting up with poor treatment. And perhaps not by coincidence, I’ve seen it used more than once by people right before they left for a higher paying or more prominent position.

Two Ways to Respond

It is this kind of environment of cynicism that inevitably leads to two outcomes for most people working in politics – burn out or sell out.

To burn out is to become numb, to simply stop caring. Without a sense of calling or concern, it becomes impossible for many people to invest the time and energy needed to fight through bureaucracy and other challenges to make the difference that most people entered politics to achieve. Burned out people often do not feel a need for rest, because they have given up feeling much of anything at all.

When I say sell out, I am not talking about taking a high-paying job as a lobbyist on K Street. I mean selling out to cynicism, accepting the broken world as it is, and giving up the belief that as Christians we are called to be agents of redemption to broken systems as well as broken people.

I have sadly fallen victim to both of these failings in my time in DC. God’s cure for this is rest – and that is not about vacation time or getting some extra sleep. It is about trust in his power in the middle of the hardship. The pictures of we have of rest in God from the Bible are often of people with their enemies all around them, in the middle of deserts, while the battle is undecided.

God’s rest requires us to look beyond the outcomes or immediate circumstances, and trust promises the extend far beyond our current troubles. 

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