Summer: A Time to Breathe and Read

Reading on the quad

The slightly slower-paced summer months offer an ideal opportunity to indulge in simple pleasures and practices that can relieve the stress created by crowded agendas, competing priorities, and other demands placed on successful leaders. Many businesspeople use the free time created by their summer schedules to catch up on books and articles they can never quite get around to reading other times of the year. Whether the reading is for self-improvement, relaxation, or simple enjoyment, the insights found can prove valuable throughout the year as leaders encounter opportunities and challenges in their personal and professional lives.

A great place to start, especially for those concerned about burnout? The works of Robert J. Wicks, Psy.D., professor of pastoral counseling, the author of more than 40 books focused on helping people discover and maintain a balanced perspective in their lives. As a professor at Loyola, as well as a speaker and teacher at other universities and professional schools of psychology, medicine, nursing, theology, and social work throughout the world, he has guided students and professionals in discovering how to value their strengths, develop a practice of mindfulness, and take charge of their self-care. Here, Wicks discusses the themes at the heart of two of his best-known books, Bounce: Living the Resilient Life and Riding the Dragon: 10 Lessons for Inner Strength in Challenging Times—as well as some of his own suggestions for summer reading.

You have written extensively on the issue of secondary stress, the pressure experienced by those reaching out to others and the gradual lessening of compassion. How does secondary stress affect people?

One of the greatest gifts we can share with others is a sense of our own peace and perspective, but we can’t share what we don’t have. When we deal directly with other people’s pressures—anger, despair, doubt, stress, anxiety, and shame—we run the risk of being infected by their negative feelings about life. Consequently, we need to know how to lean back and realize that we can be personally and professionally faithful, but not always successful. Ways that we can accomplish that include appreciating the symptoms of chronic and acute secondary stress and the elements of resilience; to know how to review and reflect upon your personal actions; to understand the elements of a self-care program that you will actually follow; and to appreciate basic steps in mindfulness.

How can managing secondary stress help you to live a more meaningful, self-aware life?

In my book Bounce: Living the Resilient Life, I discuss the reality that each of us has an opportunity to become deeper and more compassionate in response to the stressors in our lives, if we are aware of some basic practices to contain and understand stress: seek to be more mindful; try to be reasonably self-aware; and are interested in learning how to maintain a healthy sense of resilience and perspective. It is also important to have four types of friends in your interpersonal circle. They include: the Prophet, who asks you who is pulling your strings when you get upset; the Cheerleader, who is sympathetic and a real fan of you and your work; the Harasser or Teaser, since on the way to taking your work seriously you will sometimes find yourself on a detour taking yourself too seriously; and the Inspirational Friend, who calls you to be all that you can be without embarrassing you in regard to your present life’s situation.

In Riding the Dragon, you offer 10 lessons for finding inner strength. Which of these lessons are most prudent for the business community?

Actually, two of them go hand-in-hand: “Prune Carefully…and Often” and “Recognize Your Renewal Zones.”  The pruning process involves knowing that you can’t get a grade of “A” in everything that you do when other people are putting so much on your plate, so we need to prune that plate back. Pruning involves sometimes saying “no” when you can to what is not in your essential areas or when you can’t do something for political or other reasons. Decide which things you are able to do best and which ones you can do adequately. Try then not to pick on yourself for not doing as well as you do in your essential areas.

Over the years you have helped a lot of people in many fields to improve their self-care. What are some steps that a busy business professional can begin to take to achieve these goals?

Both of my books, Bounce and Riding the Dragon, are set up to be read in small bites. Reading realistic guidance on bouncing back and learning from stress is one way. Another is to develop a self-care program that is also realistic. This might include taking a short walk each day or closing your door for 10 minutes before you day begins and also for five minutes at different intervals so you can lean back, take a breath, and center yourself so that you can be more alert and mindful in all the tasks and interactions you face.

You’ve been a teacher, speaker, and consultant, often at the same time. How have you achieved a sense of balance in your life, and what advice can you offer others hoping to achieve a similar sense of balance?

Physician and author Walker Percy, in one of his novels, posed the question, “What if my life is like a plane and I missed it?”. I reflect on this quote each morning because my life is very intense and I don’t wish to be like a gargoyle on roller skates, always chasing myself and continually feeling that I have left so much undone, and what I have done not done well. I also have certain rituals that help. For instance, I get up a bit earlier than everyone else in the house, get a cup of coffee, prop myself up in bed, and have a half hour of quiet time to center myself. After that I get another cup for myself and one for my wife, who is getting up at that point, and we chat for another half hour before we both begin our intense schedules.

During the day, I also take out time for a few deep breaths as I walk to get a cup of tea or stretch my legs. By being mindful (in the now with a sense of openness), I tend to experience more of my life as it unfolds. I also take a walk each day either in the morning, at lunchtime, or in the afternoon. When I do that, I am careful not to “take a think,” but take a walk not enveloped in the days preoccupations, but rather experiencing the people and life around me.

Summer is a great time for personal growtha time to recharge, read, and reflect. Are there any other books that you find useful and would recommend for someone trying to think more strategically or grow as a leader?

Some books that I have thoroughly enjoyed are:

After the Ecstasy, the Laundry: How the Heart Grows Wise on the Spiritual Path by Jack Kornfield  

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

Dakota: A Spiritual Geography by Kathleen Norris

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

First You Have to Row a Little Boat: Reflections on Life & Living by Richard Bode  

One Minute Wisdom by Anthony De Mello, S.J.   

Solitude: A Return to the Self by Anthony Storr