On burnout, or another interpretation of something you’ve read this week

I’m not totally convinced that “burnout” in this latest BuzzFeed feature isn’t just carrying water for something larger and more mysterious. Everyone’s all caught up on this one, right? It’s worth reading, but I wanted to add a few thoughts. Stuff I’ve been kicking around lately.

“Burnout” is something I equate more specifically with the trials of juggling freelance assignments, constantly revising projects with no real goal in mind, long stretches of work without a vacation, whatever. There’s no exhalation there. It’s a real problem in American’s capitalist landscape! It’s a legitimate health concern. And we deal with it in our own ways. I usually split town with my fiancee for a few days, or, short of that, I smoke some pot and listen to old jazz records. Whatever. I’ve cultivated my own contentment.

But this feature is diagnosing a generational ill, which is a favorite chore of writers these days. I don’t think it’s helping much.

The piece begins by teeing up some weird organizational roadblock, where people my age can’t seem to get to the post office to mail in their voter registration forms or somehow can’t take three minutes to drop off their slacks at the dry cleaners around the corner. “My shame about these errands expands with each day,” Anne Helen Petersen writes, launching into the nut of the thing: “But the more I tried to figure out my errand paralysis, the more the actual parameters of burnout began to reveal themselves. Burnout and the behaviors and weight that accompany it aren’t, in fact, something we can cure by going on vacation. It’s not limited to workers in acutely high-stress environments. And it’s not a temporary affliction: It’s the millennial condition. It’s our base temperature. It’s our background music. It’s the way things are. It’s our lives.”

It’s the way things are.

The problem, I think, and I’m probably as full of it as the next guy, is that a lot of people of all ages are looking outside themselves for a sense of reality, for faith, for the meaning of life. They look and look and look, on TV, on Instagram, toward past generations’ relative comfort and lack of student debt, to the 2008 financial recession, to the president’s rantings and ravings, to market forces and “the gig economy,” to stories that we tell ourselves. Shadows on the wall of the cave. It’s the way things are, right?

This perception is not endemic to millennials, but it seems more pronounced and more prescriptive because our generation has, no doubt, grown up saddled with the vastly crushing weight of compounding alternate realities, layers of digital existence and late-capitalism sales pitches, all riddled brilliantly with manipulative interpretations of what it means to be human. Sprawling mass media. Stories. This problem, this weight, is certainly something that sets us apart from past generations, simply on face value. The internet and its spidery webs didn’t exist “back then.” Neither did The Bachelor. But so what?

The signal-to-noise ratio in white millennial American society is tremendously out of whack, which can very intentionally produce symptoms of burnout (Gah! Trump again!), but more importantly this horrible ratio confuses individuals and encourages them to ape the cultures and languages they see spinning in technicolor all around them. Advertisements and social media slang take the place of real human interaction, so people end up using marketing catchphrases in their actual speech. “Hold my beer.” “Not all heroes wear capes.” “You had one job.” “Crushing it!” It’s memetic (which is where we get the modern use of “meme”), and it robs us of creativity and humor. Doing something like that over a long period of time begins to erode any grip on a sense of self. And so we busy ourselves trying to find ourselves again.

Before long, you’re so busy looking for yourself that, of course, you don’t have time to check off minor errands from your to-do list. Couldn’t possibly! The post office begins to morph into Mount Doom, impossibly distant from your little corner of the world, and who cares anyway if you’re registered to vote? The president is just a TV character. You can change the channel. You can cut the cord!

Reality becomes transposed with something outside of you. A sense of self becomes, then, removed from the actual stuff of living a life. You may have heard of this? It’s called “adulting” now, which is another thing they sold to you. It’s not separate from life in the way that a television show is separate from life, it is life. The small moments that flutter into and out of the fog, always drifting into the past and, stunningly, emerging anew from the empty future.

It’s just easier to call it burnout, maybe because it’s kind of hard. And boring. A lot of life is a slog, but it doesn’t have to be seen that way. A “slog” is an idea, a story. A life disappears the moment you try to grasp it and identify it. A generational ill is a story, too.

It’s hard being 30 years old and working in this sort of bend-you-over economy. It’s hard scrounging money for bills each month. Going to the store to pick up cough medicine kind of sucksand the president is an asshole. But that’s got nothing to do with how individual lives ebb, flow, ebb again. “The steadier our lives, the more likely we are to make decisions that will make them even steadier,” Petersen writes, which, sure, but she’s forgetting a cosmic truth: Ain’t no such thing as a steady life. It’s all wriggly and wobbly, far as I can tell.

At the end, though, after the whole “burnout” detour, Petersen sticks a great landing, which, to bring it all back around, makes this piece worth reading.

“I don’t have a plan of action, other than to be more honest with myself about what I am and am not doing and why, and to try to disentangle myself from the idea that everything good is bad and everything bad is good. This isn’t a task to complete or a line on a to-do list, or even a New Year’s resolution,” she writes. “It’s a way of thinking about life, and what joy and meaning we can derive not just from optimizing it, but living it. Which is another way of saying: It’s life’s actual work.”

Bon voyage!

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