“Given that most exhaustion theorists’ arguments ultimately rest on the claim that their own age is the most exhausted,” writes Anna Katharina Shaffner in German burnout, “is it not time to concede that exhaustion might indeed be universal?”
Well, yes and no (sorry for the cliché.) It’s most likely true that people work too hard in pursuits that are ultimately fruitless, no matter the context, but perhaps it’s also true that to be burnt out is becoming something of a requisite. If you’re not too busy, you’re doing something wrong. Isn’t that messed up?
And isn’t it strange that the Germans, of all people, are preoccupied with exhaustion? It’s almost as if stereotypes aren’t true.
Maybe people have always been overworked. Shaffner writes:
Given that most exhaustion theorists’ arguments ultimately rest on the claim that their own age is the most exhausted, is it not time to concede that exhaustion might indeed be universal? If we were to venture further back into the past, crossing the frequently evoked modern/pre-modern threshold, we would find that many medieval men and women suffered from a lack of energy and spiritual weariness too, which might simply have been articulated in religious language – the numerous works written on melancholia and acedia (diagnoses that are also essentially structured around mental and physical exhaustion) suggest as much. Werner Post, in his beautifully written treatise on acedia (Acedia: Das Laster der Trägheit, 2011) has recently presented this argument in the most persuasive of terms. But one could look back further still: the weariness of the melancholic was a condition already theorized by Hippocrates and Galen. Rather than lamenting the horrors of modernity, perhaps it is time to acknowledge that exhaustion is simply an essential part of the human experience. Indeed, the fact that our energies are limited, and that this worries us, is very much part of what makes us human. What changes through history is not the experience of exhaustion as such, but rather the labels we invent to describe it, the causes we mobilize to explain it, and, of course, the specific cultural discontents that we tend so readily to map onto it.
But this also strikes me as a kind of cop out; it’s the Pleistocene-Overkill-Hypothesis apology of modern capitalism. People have always been burnt out, so stop complaining, will ya?
I think people have always been overworked, sure. But overworked is now the norm. If you take a moment (or a sick day) to relax and go for a walk, you’ve got problems. You’re unprofessional. You’re not managing your time well. See what I mean?