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Are You On Autopilot?

Have you ever driven home and not remembered the drive? Or done a task and then not remembered if you did it or not? I have turned around at the end of my street to go back and make sure I locked the door or turned off my straightener. I’ve texted a friend to make sure I actually did a task that I couldn’t remember completing. I’ve gotten home from the grocery and been surprised by some of the items I apparently put in my cart. I blame part of this on what is known in the industry as “teacher brain” but I know part of it is because I’m functioning on a sort of autopilot.

Humans have muscle memory which is convenient for a dancer remembering the next step in a piece of choreography or a shortstop fielding a ground ball to first but when we start cruising along on autopilot in our everyday life things can get out of whack! I know many things can lead to this autopilot mentality such as exhaustion, fear and complacency but we really need to be careful that we don’t look up one day and not recognize what is going on around us. Personally, I have seen myself go into autopilot mode in several situations and I’ve had to be intentional to “wake back up” and experience life.

Spiritual Autopilot

Have you ever sat through church only to realize you had no clue what the sermon was about? Or read through your devotional without truly listening to the words so you could check that task off the list? Or prayed the spiritual equivalent of a grocery list so you didn’t feel guilty when your head hit the pillow that night? Sometimes, we allow ourselves to believe that if we are “doing” good spiritual things we have a good spiritual life but that is not the case. This is one method that Satan loves to use to make you ineffectual. He likes to use legalism and checklists to make you feel like you are connecting and accomplishing spiritual things when in reality you are zoned out. The Bible warns us about this in so many passages because it is so easy to do.

I get that there are moments when you feel disconnected or you just can’t focus but be careful that it doesn’t become a comfortable pattern. Several years ago, the Lord gave me a wakeup call about how I’d just be going through the motions. I couldn’t understand why my prayers were returning empty and I didn’t feel like I was experiencing God but then it hit me…it was because I wasn’t experiencing God! I wasn’t even sure how it really started but I realized that if I didn’t make an intentional effort to be present for my relationship I was going to float along in chaos forever. It would be like only talking to a friend by leaving messages on their voicemail. Yeah, you’re talking but you aren’t really communicating, you know?

Experiential Autopilot

I heard someone on a podcast recently pose this question, “Are you actually experiencing your experiences?” Man, that hits close to home! I think sometimes we are so wrapped up in getting the perfect picture or what comes next that we don’t actually experience our moments but I also know that mentally checking out of an experience can be a coping mechanism for other issues. If you’ve noticed that you are physically present for an experience but not mentally present you may need to evaluate the reason why. Are you tired? Scared? Worried? Overwhelmed? Personally, I find that when I’m just going through the motions I am often handling anxiety and fear in my head. Maybe anxiety about the event I’m at, perhaps worries about another issue in my life or even concerns over things completely out of my control.

I’m a great multi-tasker so 9 times out of 10 I put on a good show and no one notices but when I get home I realize that I have no idea what happened in the last three hours. That mindset can allow future possibilities to rob the joy of present moments which, for the record, doesn’t help with the worries. For some reason, it reminds me of the old middle school dances we had in the cafeteria. I would spend weeks looking for an outfit and getting dressed up only to want to fade into the shadows as a wallflower the moment I got there. My anxieties and concerns about the actual event sent me into an autopilot state of functioning. Just follow the group of girls. Do what the group is doing. Don’t stray from the shadows. As someone with a pretty good memory, there are some huge gaps in certain experiences because I didn’t actually experience them.

Self-care Autopilot

This is one that I was very aware of as we began the new school year and one that I promised myself to be intentional with to the best of my ability. To me, self-care autopilot is when you put sections of your own life on autopilot so you have the energy and time to deal with other parts of your life. You see this a lot when people are dealing with illnesses or tragedies. There is only so much time and energy to go around and their loved ones need that so they put their own lives on autopilot so they can focus on the important issues at hand. I get it but this is only sustainable for a short period of time before you become burnt out and very much in need of help yourself.

This happens to every teacher in their first year in education (and again several times throughout their career). They don’t sleep, work through lunch, take papers home on the weekends and grade assignments during the holidays. Every teacher hits a wall at some point and for a lot of them, this is when they try to get out. They are physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted and there is no end in sight. I made a decision several years back, after I had one of these suffocating years, that I would do my job to the best of my ability but I would not kill myself for a place that would replace me before my obituary was printed. However, I knew that this year was going to be very much a “first year” for all teachers because we were headed into uncharted territory. Still, I thought I was prepared, after all, I’d been here before but boy, oh boy it still hits you and it comes in waves. I thought I was doing well until I recognized the symptoms of what I call my “stages”.

For me it started mentally… I had the craziest stress dreams ever. Ones where I was literally drowning and would wake up gasping for air. You don’t have to be Freud to figure that one out! During the day my thoughts would spiral, my chest would tighten and my breathing would get difficult. That lasted for several weeks leading up to the actual start of school and the unknown. Then, it became physical… I couldn’t sleep, had a constant headache for weeks and literally went home dragging my feet. I felt like I had run a marathon but I had actually just been at work. Both of these “stages” stunk but I’d been there before, however, I knew we were in true trouble when it became emotional… I’m not a crier. I cry when I’m angry or watching a movie but not over something truly emotional and I would NEVER cry in public until recently. I’ve seen more teachers cry in the last month than in my entire career and I’m included in that mix. I have cried in anger, in frustration and in desperation but I’ve also cried for reason that make no sense at all. A kind word on a Facebook picture. A text from a friend. A friend not being able to attend a meeting. You name it. For a solid two weeks, I cried at least once a day and I thought I was losing my mind.

At the beginning of the school year, I promised myself that I would intentionally work to not let my job consume me and put my life on autopilot. That has been easier said than done but because I knew this was a distinct possibility and how I cope when I feel overwhelmed, I had a plan. My sweet squad started several traditions during the quarantine that we have chosen to intentionally continue. For at least those few moments, I have to be somewhat engaged and intentional. (Notice how often I’m using the word intentional?) For me, it’s like the lull in the wave pool before the thrashing starts again. I admit that I haven’t been perfect and I have worked through some of these moments but it’s a beacon of light for me and my precious friends know me well enough to know if I’m really present or not and they don’t mind calling me out for which I am eternally grateful.

So, how present are you really? Sometimes, autopilot is easier but it isn’t necessarily healthier. We don’t grow on autopilot. We don’t learn on autopilot and truthfully we don’t live on autopilot. There are times when it’s definitely necessary but don’t let those moments become your only way of life. The Lord has given you a life to experience and share and love which sometimes takes us outside of comfort zones and into difficult seasons but it is necessary. Live your life, don’t just exist!

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