I once thought that persistence was one of my best qualities. During my career, if a boss wanted someone who could see a task through to a successful end, then I was that person. But like all good qualities, if you take it to the extreme, it can become a liability. So I am living proof of how persistence with respect to one's job can become something that is not only an unattractive quality, but also become harmful to one's body and spirit. I now believe it was the harm to my spirit that impacted me the most, and could have impacted my relationship with God. Thankfully, God did not desert me even as I struggled and resisted his guidance.
How did I resist God;s guidance? Well, he gave me advance warning. Proverbs chapter 4, verse 23 tells us to guard our hearts, because everything we do flows from it. What does that mean? Well, I’m sure you can google the verse and find a number of scholarly commentaries about the meaning of this particular passage. But for me, the “everything we do flows from it” phrase means that the heart has two very distinct functions. One is a bodily function, wherein the heart sends electrical impulses to make the heart beat. As the heart beats, it sends blood pumping through an impressive plumbing network of arteries, veins, etc. The blood powers the body and all of its organs, enabling them to efficiently perform the physical activities of a person’s life.
But the heart also fuels a person’s spirit. Some might also refer to this as a person’s soul or their “chi”. I am proud to say that at least for a while, I was compliant with God's will. My soul/spirit/chi motivated me in my interaction with other humans. For years, I tried to act in a way that was compassionate, empathetic and tolerant. When my heart was supplying ample fuel to my spirit, the best side of Melanie shone through, and made it a priority to not judge those I interacted with if I had not walked in their shoes. But when I became too obsessed with my job, it wasn't long before my heart was impacted, and it began to fail in a number of ways.
When I was diagnosed with heart failure, the doctors could clearly give me proof that my bodily functions were greatly impacted by the damage that had occurred to my heart. But where was the doctor who could evaluate if there was damage to the spirit side of my heart? And where was the doctor who could prescribe a treatment to restore the lifeblood to my spirit? And equally important, how did I get to this point in the first place, and who could help me avoid the same misfortune going forward? And surely the most important question - did I have time left to repair the spirit damage before I left this earth?
Over time and through the process of much prayer, I have concluded that the best force to doctor my spirit is my faith in God, and an open communication channel with God. Through my faith, and through my study of the Bible and a much stepped up prayer practice, I began to realize that I had overworked the physical side of my heart and as a result, also put the spirit side of my heart in jeopardy. I would say that during the last five years of my career, very rarely did I seek any revitalizing rest or any respite from stress.
Let me be clear that my career was not always like this. There was a time when I reveled in taking on new challenges, because it would stretch my capabilities and my knowledge base in a very positive way. But I also was conscious and appreciative of the people around me, and engaged in fun activities outside the office. I met so many wonderful colleagues who became good friends, and many of the colleagues shared my views on the importance of a faith life to overall well-being and career/life balance. Unfortunately, the career/life balance shifted and I seemed to buy into the common philosophy when your funding and work resources are cut: you will just have to work smarter. But add to that mix that you should work harder, obsess on perfection, and work 24/7.
For those out there who may also be in danger of the same calamity, let me assure you that there were warning signs for me that this philosophy was not only misguided but damaging. Looking back, I believe God was clearly sending me messages that there was heart damage that was lurking and trying to damage my spirit. Alas, the communication channel seemed to be blocked, because for some reason I was oblivious to the messages. Please heed what I say and become more aware of your internal alert system.
I think the reason is that when we focus exclusively on one thing, our guard slips. I'm not saying that I wronged people or committed evil acts. Instead, I just focused on the bodily role that my heart performed: sending electrical impulses to make sure that my body had power and could perform my job tasks at top speed and top quality (like seriously, who even knows what that is). I sacrificed the spiritual role of my heart, in that I eventually lost my energy to be a more proactive Christian, one who would search out those in need of Christ's love and an open and empathetic ear. Sadly, my prayer life, other than in church, was virtually non-existent.
So once I stepped away from the job, knowing that my heart had failed, did I try to change? After I retired, I opened the communications channels back with God, to try to figure out what the next chapter in my life would be like. But old habits die hard, and I found myself gravitating back to the old Type A workaholic habits. In other words, I fell into the lure of “Geez, I always did it this way and it was successful. Why should I change? I need to just work smarter."
I also admit that there was great fear in the concept of figuring out the next chapter for Melanie. Why? Because it meant transforming Melanie. Transformation had been a vital process in my career success. A colleague once told me I was the Madonna of the agency. He said this not because I was an awesome performer, but because like Madonna, I was continually reinventing my career goals. But now I was at a point where I was being asked to change from something that in my mind had ended in success so many times.
My mind unfortunately edited out was the fact that how I had operated in the past had now become unhealthy given the current state of my heart. Instead, my mind warned me that transforming into a different Melanie would result in scary changes. So my instinct was to return back to the days of the old Melanie and avoid change like the plague. So I ignored the signs that the persistent, work only Melanie could no longer serve as my role model.
So in my continued state of oblivion, the old Melanie was scared that I would not find enough to keep my mind occupied. Maybe because I wasn’t going to a job each day, I would turn into a hermit and begin to lose my sanity? Maybe because I wasn’t going to a job each day and earning a full salary, I would soon become destitute. I edited out the fact that I had a number of low key, non-stressful volunteer opportunities to keep me fully engaged, and that I had a good retirement income and savings. But still, I kept driving people crazy brainstorming job opportunities.
So for example, I thought about using my writing skills, working for a company that helped federal executive job applicants prepare their qualifications statements. Or I thought about starting my own business, for example, helping young professional women develop their business wardrobes. This was an idea that would capitalize both on my love for fashion and my knowledge of what would be appropriate for the professional world. That would be a great fit - right? And so I would get very excited at first about each new idea. All of my ideas would have been great for the old Melanie to pursue as a post retirement career. So there would be an initial rush of excitement as I pursued each idea. I probably drove all my friends, my therapist and my family nuts as I babbled on about each idea.
But then after the initial rush of excitement, I would begin to get anxious. Wouldn’t there be deadlines associated with preparing job applications? Meeting a deadline could cause some stress. What if I was having a bout of fatigue that got in the way? Would there be monetary risks associated with having my own business? What about professional liability? How much overhead would be involved? And one by one, any “brilliant” retirement career ideas I had would start to trickle down the drain never to be heard from again.
For once in my life, I was grateful to fall into the category of obsessive compulsive. This is because the anxiety element was a critical factor in helping to keep me from implementing any of these brainstorms. But I also think it is correct to say that my heart wasn’t really into implementing these grand ideas. That’s right. My weak heart was becoming strong enough to save me from myself and to give me the courage and the direction to maybe walk down new roads. What a miracle!
I also think that God led me to know that there was a better use of my skills. Yes, I have always loved to write. But maybe I needed to change the focus of my work product from technical, career issues to a work product that was more creative and free-flowing. I also wanted my writing to inspire people emotionally and spiritually, and not just to meet arbitrary guidelines that are required in the workplace.
Deep down, I knew that I needed to avoid endeavors that had any risk issues, because I just did not need to be burdening my heart with additional stress. I didn't need those pesky adrenaline rushes to ignite stress related responses, making me an anxious wreck. What I did need was to feel like I was using the knowledge and practical experience I had accumulated to manage my heart failure. I needed to warm and nurture my heart and spirit.
Of course, it helps that God has never deserted me, even though I had ignored him. He has been with me every step, and provided the discernment so I could assess where my gifts are today, and how they can benefit others and fulfill me. God continues to let me know that I should not force things, and will not let me embark on a new adventure until he and I both know it will be a good nurturing move for my heart and will not overwhelm my heart and my soul.
The one idea that seems consistent over the last 2 years and that seems to energize my heart is to help those with heart failure, or other chronic illnesses. I have also thought about helping young professionals as they start to make the decisions that will shape and mold their careers and their personal lives. I don't want others to ignore that important balance that we need to have between career, personal life and spiritual discipline (regardless of the religion or philosophy that is followed). Every time I think about this idea, and how it would work, I just feel calm and at peace. It has made a huge difference in my life and in curbing my anxiety. People can see the change in me.
I think it boils down to one important lesson. I had not guarded my heart, but God had forgiven me. God strengthened the spiritual side of my heart to be able to step up to protect me. For that, I will always praise God. And believe me when I tell you and God that my old friend persistence has only one role in my life now: to make sure I follow God's orders and my doctors' orders.
Melanie discovered that she had heart failure in 2013. Since that time, she has been learning how to live with the condition, and how to achieve balance and personal growth.