by Charles Hugh Smith
“At least once a year, I completely burn out: exhausted, I no longer have the energy or will to care about anything but the bare minimum for survival. Everything not essential for survival gets jettisoned or set aside. This goes with the territory if you’re trying to accomplish a lot of things that are intrinsically complex and open-ended- for example, running a business, being a parent, juggling college, work, family, community commitments, etc.
I am confident many if not most of you have experienced burnout due to being overwhelmed by open-ended, inherently complex commitments. I don’t think burnout is limited to individuals. I think entire organizations and institutions can experience burnout, especially organizations devoted to caring for others or those facing long odds of fulfilling their core purpose.
I even think entire nations can become exhausted by the effort of keeping up appearances or navigating endless crises. At that point, the individuals and institutions of the nation just go through the motions of coping rather than continue the struggle. Perhaps Venezuela is a current example. I have long suspected that in many ways America is just going through the motions
John Michael Greer (the Archdruid) has brilliantly described a process he calls catabolic collapse, which I would characterize as the stairstep-down of overly complex, costly systems as participants react to crises by resetting to a lower level of complexity and consumption. Just as ecosystems have intrinsic carrying capacities, so too do individual humans and human systems. When our reach exceeds our grasp, and the costs of complexity exceed the carrying capacity of the underlying systems, then we have to move down to a lower level of complexity and lower cost-structure/energy consumption.
This sounds straightforward enough, but it isn’t that easy in real life. We can’t offload our kids and downsize to part-time parenting or magically reduce the complexities of operating a small business (or two). These tasks are intrinsically open-ended.Reductions in stress and complexity such as quitting a demanding job (and earning one-third of our former salary) require long years of trimming and planning.
So what can we do to work through burnout? Since I’m designed to over-commit myself, burnout is something I’ve dealt with since my late teens. I like to think I’m getting better at managing it, but this is probably illusory. (It may be one of those cases where the illusion is useful because it’s positive and hopeful.)
I find these responses helpful:
1. Reduce whatever complexity can be reduced. Even something as simple as making a pot of chili or soup to eat for a few days (minimizing daily meal prep) helps. Reduce interactions and transactions.
2. Daily walks- two a day if possible. If there is any taken-for-granted magic in daily life (other than sleep, dreaming and playing music), it’s probably walking- especially if you let your mind wander rather than keep working.
3. More naps, more sleep.
4. Avoid the temptations of overly fatty/sweet/carbo comfort food, digital distractions, etc.
5. Keep to positive routines (stretching, walking, etc.), no matter how tired and down you feel.
6. Set aside time to play your musical instrument of choice, preferably improvisation rather than practice.
7. Do whatever calms your mind, even if it requires effort.
8. Do stuff you enjoy and set aside as much of the stuff you actively dislike doing as possible.
9. Set aside solitary time to “do nothing.” Lowering the barriers raised by conscious effort, focus and thought may well be critical to our well-being.
This is one conclusion from research cited by Sherry Turkel in “Scientific American:” “For the first time in the history of our species, we are never alone and never bored. Have we lost something fundamental about being human?”
I think the answer is an unequivocal yes. Our minds need periods of solitude, aimless wandering (i.e. boredom), time to integrate thoughts and feelings, time to question things and time for introspection. Without these restorative periods, we end up just going through the motions, on an autopilot setting of keeping overly complex lives and systems duct-taped together.This leads to burnout, and eventually to some measure of catabolic collapse/system reset.”
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