Back in early 2010 I read Ran Prieur’s warning that when you have, at last, the time and opportunity and freedom to do nothing, nothing is all you will want to do, and you may then remain depressed for a long time before you finally discover and realize what you, alone, unpressed by others, really want to do with your life.
That was when, having just retired, I really thought I had that opportunity and freedom for the first time in my life. In my case Ran’s warning was mostly right, though what I did want to do is to play, to have more fun and joy in my life. Three and a half years later nothing has much changed for me — I still spend most of my time in various forms of play, and am mostly unmotivated to do anything else.
I have asked myself why I’m not even seriously looking for something I can do that will, in some meaningful way, make the world a better place. I thought this was because I’d given up hope that our civilization could be ‘saved’ from collapse, or even should be. If it’s all falling apart anyway, what’s the point of investing time and energy trying to do something that will soon be undone? What’s the point of risking imprisonment or death to do something that really might have a chance of stopping the development of the Tar Sands, which is driving the planet inexorably beyond the tipping point to climate catastrophe, when it’s obviously already too late? And what’s the point of working to end factory farming, especially now that criticizing or even witnessing its atrocities is in many places a criminal offence? Even if we could shame Western factory farm agribusiness into cleaning up their act (which is doubtful), third world (especially Chinese) agribusinesses, which are buying up factory farms and consolidating humane farms into new factory farms everywhere on the planet, will not be so queasy, and will treat protesters much more ruthlessly than those in Western regimes.
But I’m not so sure my reluctance to become an activist is really because it’s hopeless, or dangerous. The idealist in me wants to do it anyway. There is a third aspect to the “discourage opponents” strategy of the perpetrators of horrors like the Tar Sands and factory farms. In addition to convincing us (with all the media, politicians and lawyers at their disposal) that opposing them is hopeless and dangerous, they are working to show us that it will also be exhausting. And that, I think, is the real reason I have tried to let go of my ambitions to fight the worst atrocities of our now-global industrial civilization — I’m exhausted.
I’m trying to think of the last time I didn’t feel tired. There have been some brief moments when a chemical rush has temporarily erased my fatigue — moments when I’ve felt truly present and connected with all life on earth, or deeply and madly in love. But they’re transient, and seemingly largely out of my control.
This exhaustion isn’t intellectual — I remain fascinated by new ideas, learning, discoveries, insights and perspectives, and if anything I crave more intellectual stimulation in my life. And it isn’t physical — I’m physically healthy and fit, probably more than I’ve been in my entire life. It’s emotional.
Why is this? Partly I think it’s a result of the chronic anxiety that we all feel. We have been effectively brainwashed from birth to believe our world of incredible abundance is a world of terrible scarcity — that we aren’t nearly wealthy enough, attractive enough, smart enough, healthy enough, popular enough, safe enough — so that corporations and politicians can ‘sell’ us solutions to these scarcities. And in the process we’ve been propagandized to blame ourselves for these scarcities: We wouldn’t be so poor if we weren’t lazy or stupid; so unhealthy if we quit our pleasurable habits, ate better and worked out more; so unattractive and lonely if we “self-improved”.
We have been rendered dependent on others, and learned that the systems of supply of those we depend on are unreliable, unsustainable, and massively destructive — but can see no way to restore a collective self-sufficiency that will make us less dependent. Thanks to the two-income trap we are working harder and longer for less return, and have no time or energy for anything at the end of the work day except collapse and escapism. Thanks to the loss of community, we lack a tribal or village support network, and mostly find our problems are ‘all on us’ to deal with.
We feel, as a result, inadequate, helpless, frightened, depressed, angry, overworked, unable to control anything, uncertain to the point of paralysis. All the time. No wonder we’re emotionally exhausted.
For the last 15 years or so (most of it chronicled in this blog) I’ve been trying to find ways to alleviate my anxiety, and with it my exhaustion. For the most part it was an “energy conservation” project — trying to do less, to work less, to get upset less, to own less. I’ve done this, pretty successfully. But this is more a prescription for dealing with physical exhaustion than mental (emotional) exhaustion.
What might be the components of an emotional “energy conservation” program? What would it take to put your life in order so that you no longer felt so tired all the time?
Although I hinted at how I’ve been trying to deal with this last month, I’m hesitant to proffer answers to these questions (to myself or to others). I’m starting to think that my personal ‘prescriptions’ on this blog are just more impossible “self-help” prescriptions that make things worse instead of better. “There’s the obvious way out, why can’t I just take it, what’s wrong with me?” — you know the feeling. “I just need to learn to be more accepting of what is, less self-critical, more self-aware, to let go of what I can’t change.” It’s all in your mind, so just change your mind.
If only it were so easy. There’s a reason things are the way they are, including our mental states. We can only be who we are.
Perhaps it’s time for me to stop striving to be more present (in both the intellectual ‘on’ sense and the instinctual ‘connected with all life on earth’ sense depicted on the right side of the chart above) and accept the moments of presence as the rare gift they are. Perhaps I’m going to spend 70% of the rest of my life in the ‘anxious’ state and 30% in the ‘ecstatic’ state (left side of the chart above) no matter what I try to do. Perhaps I’ve caught Civilization Disease for good, and chronic anxiety and disconnection and occasional depression and emotional exhaustion are just symptoms of this disease that I will have until I die, and the moments of ecstasy are pleasant times of escape, of play, when that disease doesn’t hurt so bad, even if the ecstasy just masks the pain rather than lessening it.
This is not a pleasant thought. But perhaps, having moved past the denial that our civilization can be reformed or should be saved from collapse, and that anything I can do will have any significance on any scale once I’m gone, it’s time to move past the denial than I can, by ‘practice’, learn to be anyone other than whom I’ve become, not even, any more, the ever-‘present’ child I was when I was five.
But just as I’m not sure I’m totally ready to give up fighting the Tar Sands and factory farming, I’m not sure I’m totally ready to give up trying to find the person, trapped inside this terrible disease, that I always thought I was, and used to be.