In the post with which I rebooted, once again, this blog, I talked about how an offhand remark by someone I know, as Ukraine was being invaded, that “going from Trump to Covid to this is a lot” made me realize once more that I’ve been in a state of hypervigilance since 2015, while those without my privilege set have been in one for much longer.
It’d already been rolling around in my head a bit because of this Kelsey McKinney piece for Defector about how after two years of the pandemic going “back to normal” simply wasn’t enough, even though it probably was what the powers-that-be were seeking. McKinney made me realize that it wasn’t just that I was suffering a resurgent autistic burnout (although I was, and anyway it also had never fully abated), but that everything that was happening made you want to wave your arms around explaining that what was wrong was, you know, all of this.
This notion of a ceaseless hypervigilance is in the air, as evidenced by today’s Anne Helen Petersen newsletter.
In many cases—including the current one—we don’t actually leave the previous crisis behind; it just wanes in urgency, with a promise that it will certainly wax again. It demands a sort of cyclical vigilance—and it’s been the norm for the last two pandemic years, with their ongoing waves of high-alert anxiety, but it’s also characteristic of the ongoing climate catastrophe, of the erosion of voting rights, of the threats to trans kids and the families and health care professionals and educators who affirm them, of outbursts of horrific racist violence, of school shootings, of giant steps back it comes to women’s bodily autonomy. It happens, then it happens again, then it just keeps happening.
Petersen is careful, as we must try to be, to underscore that people less privileged than she (or I) are not only now waking up into such a state of hypervigilance, and also runs down the helpful and distressing list of “all of this” type of things that in fact were happening before Trump was running for president.
It’s the way things happen sometimes, but I can’t help but notice that this hypervigilance discourse simply cannot be divorced from the burnout discourse, and not just because I’ve once again linked Petersen. All of this is connected, and in precisely the sorts of ways, I argue, that explode the lie that burnout somehow purely is an occupational phenomenon.
(To some degree, as highlighted by Whizy Kim last year for Refinery29, it’s the very fact that more privileged people started to experience some degree of chronic stress over the state of things that a more visible conversation started.)
Steven David Hitchcock, writing for The Conversation back when Petersen’s book about “millennial burnout” came out, notes that in reality “medical experts are starting to see burnout as a society-wide issue” and “mental health groups have identified burnout as a product of long-term, or chronic, stress”—and “not necessarily a product of the workplace specifically”.
Kim’s piece focuses on work but like many such pieces on occupational burnout can’t help but use language that when tweaked just a bit (illustrated here with bracketed words) yields to the idea that burnout isn’t just about work.
Maybe a telltale sign of burnout is when you start thinking in such extreme terms, ruminating on life and death as it pertains to your [life] satisfaction. If you’re wondering what would happen if you died tomorrow, and weighing how deeply your [friends and family] would feel the loss of you, you’re not just tired. You’re preoccupied with existential questions related to meaning and purpose. And they’re all related to your [life].
Burnout is not depression, per se, although there’s a degree of overlap in symptomatology and certainly they can co-occur. As I posited yesterday, effectively burnout is neurasthenia, in which your nervous system and your psyche simply overload like an electrical circuit with too much plugged into it. Electrical wiring is rated for its load capacity. Humans don’t have a mathematical calculation to tell us when our load is too high, but we do have circuit breakers that trip and shut things down. We have burnout.
Shannon Palus, writing for Slate in 2019, about how burnout is not just a millennial thing, tried to zoom the picture out a bit.
Ultimately, burnout isn’t a “millennial condition,” as Petersen argues. It’s the condition of being human in a capitalist society. The specifics may be new (Slack allows for nonstop work, Instagram makes the fruits of your work feel small and dull), but I have trouble believing that my great-grandmother, working on a farm in Pennsylvania with a dozen-ish kids, never had tiny to-do list items that rolled over from one week to the next—what Petersen dubs “errand paralysis.” I have trouble believing she never felt the day-to-day of running a household went underrecognized in those years way before The Feminine Mystique sought to blow the lid off of unrecognized labor.
Emphasis added, although I think there is a historical difference between our great-grandparents and us: they were not being bombarded with updates on their world, whether those updates personally impacted them or not, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, three-hundred and sixty-five days a year. While for a great many people the work world arguably improved, the size of the world itself also dramatically increased, as did its access to our capacity for attention.
Work can cause burnout on its own, but unless we happen to live in the world of the Apple TV+ series Severence, work also does not exist separate and completely apart from everything else trying to plug into our load-limited circuitry.
The condition of being human in a (neoliberal) capitalist society is one, per L. M. Sacasas citing Jacques Ellul, which “is constructed in such a way that the human being qua human being becomes an impediment, a liability to the functioning of the system”. The reason I talk about an intrinsic field guiding us to conform and perform is because it’s systemic in a way that transcends work—or, if you like, it turns all of our waking moments (and perhaps our sleeping ones, too) into a kind of work.
Not to strain credulity by haphazardly cobbling together a theory of everything, but I think this all is partly why Arthur C. Brooks myopic celebration of seeking to be an outsider rankled me so: the intrinsic field already is a kind of self-othering force, alienating us from ourselves “in such a way that the human being qua human being becomes an impediment”.
Outsiderness isn’t a vacation. We live our every day and the everyday under the chronic stress of a “technique” which—falsely—entices us with the prospect, finally, of getting to be inside, forcing us to become outsiders even from our innate sense of our own value and worth as individual human beings.
McKinney’s piece, that made me gesture flailingly at everything, is a reminder that getting back to normal might be the worst thing we possibly could do. It’s mathematician and astrophysicist Tricia McMillan telling passengers, “We have normality. I repeat, we have normality. Anything you still can’t cope with is therefore your own problem.”
Why wouldn’t we burn out? Why shouldn’t we?