The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.
Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”
The Lord said to him, “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram. Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet. Jehu will put to death any who escape the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to death any who escape the sword of Jehu. Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him.” – 1 Kings 19: 11-18
Burnout on the job is commonplace today, even among those engaged in Earth observations, science, and services (despite the fact that such labor is clearly some of the more interesting and less onerous tasks daily facing a 4-billion-person workforce). It’s easy to think that burnout is something new, a 20th-21st-century invention, and forget that it happened to workers, and prophets, down through the ages. This Old Testament account documents one such case… the prophet Elijah.
Take the trouble to read the text prior to the excerpt above, and you’ll find that Elijah is coming off the pinnacle of his career. Years earlier, he’d forecast a severe drought – a forecast which verified(!). But the forecast and the manner in which he’d made it inspired the anger of the power structure of the time (sound familiar?) and he’d been forced into hiding for the duration. After years of running from Israel’s king in the desert, Elijah resurfaced, confronted hundreds of the king’s hired naysayers, and with the help of the larger Israeli public, slew them all. And with that, the years of the drought come to a dramatic end.
You’d think Elijah would have been on a high. But instead burnout and depression sank in, and he fled, seeking shelter in a cave. That’s when he and God (think of God as Elijah’s boss/employer) had the conversation above. Elijah’s boss goes easy on him. Essentially God says, “I see you’re hurting, Elijah. Tell you what, you’ve done a good job, let’s wrap up a few things and name your successor. Elisha would be good. But oh, by the way, you were never alone the way you thought. You had plenty of company. Thousands of ‘em.”
Two comparisons with today:
First, to hang out with climate scientists is to realize that here is a group that feels put upon, perhaps uniquely so, much as Elijah did. The forecast of global warming and its likely consequences, and the way we’ve made it have brought not praise but opprobrium. And the way we’ve reacted to that has brought more disapproval still. We look at other branches of science with wistful envy. We ask ourselves: Why didn’t we go into nanotechnology? Or IT? Or robotics? Or fast food? Or almost anything else?
But in recent days, if we take the trouble to look over our shoulders, we see the same raging debate about – wait for it – measles inoculations. I vividly remember the days I spent in bed with measles at the age of five. My parents told me later, and then throughout my life, that the closest I ever came to dying was back then, and how worried they’d been. Measles would compromise my health throughout the rest of my childhood. The same happened to thousands, millions, of other kids. So when the vaccine came along in the 60’s it was naturally and widely celebrated. But read the newspapers today, or follow the broadcast and social media coverage, and you’ll see the climate change argument replicated down to the smallest detail. (Hint to climate scientists: take everything you’ve ever written about climate change and substitute a few words like “measles,” “vaccination,” “uncertainty,” “unintended consequences” in the right places and you can double your list of publications… all before going home tonight.)
Oh, and let’s be clear here. The generalized lesson for you and me to learn is not that “all scientists are put upon.” Fact is, the feeling that we are uniquely misunderstood and alone is nigh on universal. Every one of us — whether husband or wife, parent or child, lawyer or ditchdigger, clerk or CEO — tends to see life this way, at least in the darker moments of the soul.
Here’s the second comparison, more particular to Washington DC. Our city is populated by about 500,000 people who were told by mom and dad to “go and make the world a better place.” Each day we slave at it. But instead of reminding ourselves that we’re part of a 500,000-person support group, we think we’re the only ones… just like that prophet Elijah.
And just as wrong-headed. So today (and tomorrow, and in the days after that) try this: every time you write an e-mail, or pick up the phone to take or make a call, or post on Facebook, or engage in conversation, instead of mistakenly seeing that interaction as combat, or struggle, recognize it for what it is – a celebration of what it means to be alive and a player in the 21st century. And help the person or persons at the other end of that dialog to the same realization.
That’s what mom and dad sent you into the world to do.