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.
This post came at an interesting time for me. I took this past week off from my increasingly demanding job and spent the first day escaping on a day trip, the next two days crying intermittently (sobbing once or twice, but mostly just leaking tears for long periods of the day), the next two days doing nothing but playing Candy Crush on Facebook, one day that started off in a promising way (getting a facial) and then devolved into hours of listlessly looking at my bookshelf full of self-help books from a time when I thought they’d help, and then about three hours of working around the house and cooking that actually made me feel like I was caring for my environment and my family. Monday I step right back into the rapids of my life without feeling like I took a break at all.
I wish there were answers, but they’re hard to come by. But it helps to read that I’m not the only one who’s feeling exhausted. Exhausted and hopeless and scared and angry and paralyzed so much of the time. And it makes those fleeting moments of bliss and meaningful connection with others all the more precious.
Dave, have you ever hit the nail on the head with this one……. there wasn’t one word in this essay that I could not relate to. I’ve been diagnosed with chronic fatigue, but maybe just maybe I too am just emotionally exhausted….
Dave, Good stuff. I’ve been an “activist” all my life, since my parents first took me on protest walks in front of the GM plant to organize workers when I was 3 or 4 years old (1947-1948). I kept going pretty strong for a long time (it helps to be manic/depressive). You get a lot done when you’re manic and you learn to live with anxiety and depression. As I got healthier, I also realized I was burning out my energy, and as you say, “tired all the time.” I’m still working on ways to keep emotionally refreshed and still have fun and frolic choosing the ways I can stand up for myself, my family, my community, and my world. Thanks for your musings and offerings.
thanks, I can really relate to your thoughts in this post.
You contrast a lot of things here…various states and approaches…
I sometimes think there is a meta-practice of living that is suggested by the ubiquity of bilateral symmetry and lateral alternations in things like animal locomotion, heart pumping, breathing, etc.
Perhaps forward motion in life depends less on favoring or “holding” any particular practice, state, approach, tactic, etc. and more on alternating them in symmetrical and rhythmical ways.
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Maybe a different sort of info-graphic visualization would help. The Greeks have a word called Kairos which is different from chronos in that it is not about chronological time but more about large and significant moments in which time sort of collapses. A moment embodies both the past present and future. Such a moment is more than a single point on a chronological time line.
I think what I am trying to say is that those rare “moments” you describe have a value not defined by their 30 percent share of the chronological time scale.
I have had this post on my Outlook “To Do” list ever since it was released..sorry..
I believe this feeling of exhaustion is basically the same one that you feel after exams or when someone you love decides that he or she is moving on or you lose a close relative or friend, or perhaps even post natal depression or post stress syndrome.
Our experience suggests the feeling comes because your brain has depleted or over used the often limited supply of micro-nutrients that comprise a large percentage of the enzymes that are needed by the 100 billion neurons in your head. There are 300K different enzymes so the need for consuming a wide range of micro-nutrients is obvious. Sure oxygen and glucose are needed as well but these ingredients are more easily replaced in normal life.
Anyway, if this connects a few dots for you, you might want to look into it. I have but you need to do your own thinking. I have sumarised my findings in my book or summarised it here in a newspaper:
By the way, yes I do sell what I think is a solution (supplement); but don’t let that put you off because you cannot patent minerals and you could go and buy your own..
Yes, modern lives have been organized in an incredibly exhausting fashion. It amazes me that people put up with this. How can anyone get up before sunrise, have nothing but liquid stimulant for breakfast (coffee), sit through an hour of stop and go traffic or a jammed ride on a subway car, then sit in a room with no natural light all day, eat a fast food lunch that includes no nutrients to speak of, return home through the same chaos and stress only to arrive to additional chores at home and probably another “meal” that is little more than “heat yourself” fast food… do this 5/7ths of their lives… and then be expected to feel anything other than listless, unfulfilled and after a while sick of it.
Your dis-ease with this plan is not sick. It is a healthy response to a sick system. This is not how humans are meant to live. Granted, it’s better than things have been for many people since people moved off the farms en masse. At least you may be returning to a beautiful home with lots of conveniences. At least you have weekends off and some vacation time and paid sick leave. Unions have done a lot for you… but they haven’t addressed the central issue, which is that humans are not fulfilled when all they do is survive and engage in “entertainment” that is meant to distract them from how unfulfilled they are.
Not only that, but it isn’t even enough to have escaped this system ourselves. The fact that this is the norm around us, means that even the comfortably retired/financially independent are still affected, because most of the people around them are in a profound state of despair under the smiles and polite greetings. The people you encounter at the store, the delivery driver bringing your package, the people you pass on the street, the friends you dine with… most of them are pretending to not want to cry all the time, however consciously or unconsciously. As an empathic being, that is going to affect you.
I’m afraid I can’t offer any prescriptions for feeling good within a society out of balance. The solution is to either restore balance to our society or accept that feeling good is not required. No one ever promised you a rose garden is a major understatement. Who said there would be something more? Que Sera Sera, and all that. As a meditation practitioner and teacher, and someone deeply empathic who has suffered severe anxiety since childhood while also being a member of an ethnic group that has meant I would be a target of hatred, violence, ostracism and discrimination both blatant and subtle innumerable times over the years, I can only offer this, I am happy.
I am not always feeling good, at the level of saying there is no physical dis-ease going on in my body. Sometimes I feel quite bad: whether because anxiety is causing me to feel like I’ve been hit with a lightning bolt and can’t relax my muscles; or because I’m not getting what I want, yet can’t seem to stop wanting it all the same; or because I’m concerned about someone else; or because I’m remembering a past cruelty I believe I suffered unjustly; or any number of other reasons. There are countless things that will knock us out of the feel good groove. But what is maintained is this, okay. Yes, that’s what’s going on right now.
There is this anxiety, this tension, it doesn’t feel good, this pain or anger or whatever emotion. There it is. Okay. I’m still breathing. When I look for it, I notice my consciousness is still there and it is doing just fine. Awareness is just as pristine as it was the day I was born. There is a pervasive lovingness there at all times, waiting for me to pay attention to it. And whatever else is there with it, however pleasant or unpleasant my mental stories about those contents of experience might be, I’ve decided that it’s enough. I have met the nakedness of this thing, and my answer is yes.