The wages of sin are death, but by the time taxes are taken out, it’s just sort of a tired feeling. —Paula Poundstone
My day starts early. The alarm goes off at 4:00 AM. I walk the dog and we’re back by 4:30. I make coffee, read through the more important (in my opinion) overnight headlines, then start on the morning’s article by 5:00. Kat gets up at 6:00, the little demons thirty minutes after that. Kids on the school bus at 7:00, Kat out the door at 8:00, and then the real work starts. By noon, I’m exhausted. Staying up past 10:00 at night takes monumental effort now. There never seems to be a moment when I’m not tired.
Most of you can relate. I see it in your Facebook statuses and Monday morning tweets. I think this probably sums up how most of us feel when Mondays come around:
— GamesYouLoved ❤️ (@gamesyouloved) August 8, 2016
Here’s the thing: that we are “lucky” enough to complain about being tired, or exhausted, or worn out might be a sign of status we didn’t know we had achieved. New Republic published an article by Hannah Rosefield a couple of weeks ago that claims being tired is a status symbol. Writing almost exclusively from Anna Katharina Schaffner’s book, Exhaustion: A History, Ms. Rosefield looks at how exhaustion is both, “a sign of weakness and a badge of honor.”
This Is Nothing New
People have been tired ever since that Adam-type dude said to Eve, “Hey, hand me that apple, will you?” to which she groaned, “Get it your fucking self. My feet are killing me.” Or something to that effect. We’ve all seen the paintings and illustrations of serfs and slaves toiling endlessly in the hot sun while their unforgiving masters sipped mint juleps on the veranda. Had anyone tried telling those dear people that their exhaustion was a status symbol, one might have gotten 30 lashes with a whip, if anyone still had the energy to handle the whip.
But there was some point at which we began to look at exhaustion as an “affliction,” that fell upon on members of the upper class, especially women. I mean, how else could one explain why those lily white countesses just didn’t feel up to making it to the evening ball. “Put on a corset and fourteen layers of petticoats? I’m sorry, eating cheese and petting cats have left me too tired for dancing.”
Explaining exhaustion has long been more a matter of guesswork than science. Ms. Rosefield explains:
In the Renaissance, melancholia was associated with the influence of Saturn; in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, excessive masturbation produced exhausted bodies and minds. In the mid-nineteenth century, the diagnostic concept of melancholia gave way to that of neurasthenia, which was caused by weak or exhausted nerves. Well into the twentieth century, neurasthenia was the go-to diagnosis for those suffering from exhaustion, anxiety and low mood, alongside an array of other—and to modern eyes, unrelated—symptoms: phobias, hay fever, ticklishness.
Wait, they actually thought you could get tired from ticklishness? Yes, Ferb, yes they did. If that’s true, then the Tipster should be worn out every day!
A Choice Of Verbiage
Whether you being tired elevates your status apparently depends on the words one uses to describe the feeling. Just saying, “I’m tired,” doesn’t cut it. Neither does feigning depression (not taking anything away from the millions who actually suffer depression). You want to say you’re “burned out” if you want that upwardly mobile status kick. After all, that’s what Pope Benedict XVI essentially said when he abdicated in 2013. Being Pope was just too tough and he needed to move on. You understand how that feels, I’m sure.
Ms. Rosefield explains:
To say that you’re exhausted is to telegraph that you’re important, in demand, and successful. It’s akin to the humblebrag of ruefully describing yourself as “so busy”—naturally, since exhaustion follows from busyness. In Schaffner’s telling, the associations of exhaustion with prestige have crystallized in the form of burnout. First used in the 1970s to describe exhaustion suffered by workers in the social sector, “burnout” was characterized by increased cynicism and apathy, and a decreased sense of personal accomplishment. Since then, its application has widened to include all worn down, overburdened workers, especially in Germany, Sweden, and the Netherlands, where burnout is a subject of regular media debate. Burnout, caused by workplace conditions rather than by a worker’s mental and physical composition, is depression’s more palatable, more prestigious cousin. As the German journalist Sebastian Beck puts it: “Only losers become depressive. Burnout is a diagnosis for winners, or, more specifically: for former winners.”
See, it’s all in how one describes their affliction. When you hit that productivity wall about 3:30 this afternoon, just say you’re momentarily burned out. You’ll be regarded highly among your peers, I’m sure.
Unsurprisingly, not everyone agrees with the whole exhaustion is a status symbol thing. In fact, there are those who have been countering that argument for a while. The Washington Post ran an article back in 2012 with the rather telling headline, “Exhaustion is not a status symbol.” Don’t you just love how the endless archives of the Internet help keep us honest?
Okay, so the Post’s article is primarily an interview with University of Houston professor Brené Brown who was promoting a new book at the time. She hits the nail on the head, though, when she talks about how we use terms such as “crazy busy:”
‘Crazy-busy’ is a great armor, it’s a great way for numbing. What a lot of us do is that we stay so busy, and so out in front of our life, that the truth of how we’re feeling and what we really need can’t catch up with us. … It’s like those moving walkways at the airport — you’ve got to really pay attention when you get off them, because it’s disorienting. And when you’re standing still, you become very acutely aware of how you feel and what’s going on in your surroundings. A lot of our lives are getting away from us while we’re on that walkway.
You followed that, didn’t you? Our being “crazy busy” and the subsequently tired exhaustion that comes along with it is a way of avoiding how we’re really feeling. That makes sense, doesn’t it? Everyone wants to avoid how and what they feel on Monday.
Leaping Off The Merry-Go-Round
I’ll be honest, I rolled my eyes through the larger part of both articles and everything else I read on the topic before starting this one. From where I’m sitting, the whole mess sounds as though we’re either making excuses for laziness or failing to realize when we have a legitimate problem. Do some people honestly work too hard? Absolutely. I’ve known several. At the same time, however, I’ve known far too many people who complain about being tired when they’ve actually done next to nothing. They just want someone to feel sorry for them and justify their desire to slouch.
Ms. Brown did say something I found interesting, though:
… when we make the transition from crazy-busy to rest, we have to find out what comforts us, what really refuels us, and do that. We deserve to not just put work away and be in service of someone else. What’s really meaningful for us? What do we want to be doing? That happens not just in work culture, I see it even with teenagers who now have four and five hours of homework and go to bed at one in the morning. We don’t know who we are without productivity as a metric of our worth. We don’t know what we enjoy, and we lose track of how tired we are.
Finally, something that makes sense. Work that has no meaning for us causes us to feel more tired. Whether one is a celebrity or a factory worker, burger flipper or Pope, we all want to feel that there is some meaning to what we do. Without meaning, we’re all exhausted, melancholic, burned out, and maybe even a bit depressed. Ick.
So, perhaps our #MondayMotivation is to find meaning in what we do today. Or drink more coffee. I’m on my third cup. Coffee equals meaning, doesn’t it?