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Burning the Candle at Both Ends

For the month of September, I thought it would be fun to think about some of those cute little phrases or idioms from the past. They’re things I’ve heard my grandparents say and things I’ve heard myself say knowing I’m turning into my grandparents. Oh well, I could do much worse. One of the phrases I can always relate to is this: burning the candle at both ends. If I were to write a book about my life, this could be the title for many of the chapters.

The origin of this phrase is actually from a poem. In 1920, Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote a poem called “First Fig” which goes like this:

“My candle burns at both ends; It will not last the night; But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends— It gives a lovely light!”

Looking at the poem, it seems she’s commenting on those times in life when we’re not making the most wise decisions, but it’s temporary and we aren’t interested in others’ opinion on it. We’ve all been there. While producing slightly more light, two fires waste the candle by burning it twice as fast. It’s reckless and wasteful but memorable.

Something cool about language is that it’s always changing and morphing. Despite Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem, we don't usually use this phrase for the lost years of partying in college. No, it's much more innocent than that. Maybe that's why it's more dangerous. We use this phrase to describe days when we work late into the night and then wake up early to start again. It’s a shortening of the night. Those days when we need to light a candle at one end of the day and another, too quickly, in the morning to begin the next day.

Here are some things to remember about burning the candle at both ends:

1. It’s not an efficient way to burn a candle.

If the candle is burning on both ends, it’s getting

used up twice as fast. That’s true of us too. When we’re working so close to our limit, we’re not working efficiently. Think about times when you’ve stayed up too late working on something. Didn’t it take you much longer than it would have with sufficient rest?

2. It’s dangerous.

How does one even hold a candle that’s burning at both ends? If it’s like the picture, you’re ether going to get burned or drop the candle and burn other things. When we’re overdoing it, we hurt ourselves and those around us. We can’t give our family or friends our best when we’re too tired to function. Know your warning lights. For me, if I’m really quick to yell at my kids or my husband, I know something is off. That doesn’t mean I always make a change or even acknowledge it, but usually, it’s a sign that I need some rest.

3. It will not last the night.

Burning the candle at both ends should be the exception not the rule. Truthfully, there are times when it’s necessary. If you have a huge deadline for work or school, you may be forced to light the candle at both ends from time to time. A little lost sleep isn’t going to kill you. The problem is when we allow this to be the norm. Don’t allow this pattern to be your fallback or you’ll burn out in no time. (Pun intended)

It’s that time of year when the calendar is filling up. Sports, school, and church schedules are coming out. As you fill up the calendar, be mindful of working in time for you and your family to rest. Make time for things that make you feel like you. Maybe that’s a hobby, exercise, or time with a friend. Schedule those times and defend them when things get busy. Decide how much sleep you need to be your best and then make decisions that reflect that decision. Think about the backwards math you use to get everyone out of the house in the morning and do it for your bedtime. If you need to get in bed at a certain time, work backward with your evening routine and start in time to get everything done in time. You deserve it. So do those around you.

The hard thing about burning the candle at both ends is we’ve bought into the poem. Remember that the poet said, “But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends. It gives a lovely light!” In our highly competitive, workaholic world, we made this into something to be proud of. We see the light as lovely instead of how inefficient, dangerous, and temporary it is.

Culture says it's noble to grind until you have nothing left. The Bible says otherwise. Look at Matthew 11:28-10. Jesus said, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."

My prayer for you in this season is that you’ll place the candle in the candle stick, light it at the beginning of the day, shine bright, and when it’s the right time, extinguish it and get some rest.




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