What's Tony Thinking

Burned Out on Burnout?


The historian Jill Lepore has a piece on burnout in a recent New Yorker. It is titled, “It’s Just Too Much: Has Burnout Become the Human Condition?”

As befits an historian Lepore gives us some history of the concept. “Burnout” was first named by the psychologist, Herbert J. Freudenberger in 1973. The term is too imprecise for many in the medical field, which may be why it is more often a self-diagnosis than a clinical one. Freudenberger borrowed it from drug users who used it to name their own suffering.

By 1985 Freudenberger declared that he was burned out on burn out. That didn’t keep him from publishing more books on the topic, including a new one that year, Women’s Burnout: How to Spot It, How to Reverse It, and How to Prevent It. A title like that has “best-seller” written all over it.

What most interested me about Lepore’s essay was when she speculated on burnout’s causes. Here’s Lepore: “The louder the talk about burnout, it appears, the greater the number of people who say they’re burned out; harried, depleted, and disconsolate. What can explain the astonishing rise and spread of this affliction?”

Lepore speculates on two possibilities. First — this one got my attention — “declining church membership.” She recounts the recent data that shows a precipitous drop in church/ religious congregation belonging in the last thirty-five years. In 1985 71% of Americans belonged to a house of worship. By 2020 that number had dropped to 47%.

There are a lot of possible reasons for the fall off. I pondered some in an earlier post. One I didn’t mention in that piece, but which strikes me now is that this 35 year period roughly parallels the emergence of the Religious Right and it’s politicization of Evangelical Christianity. The upshot of that has been that in the public mind “Christian” has become identified with a sub-culture that often contradicts the Gospel in its fearfulness and lack of generosity.

To return to the main point, why might church belonging/ participation serve as a vaccine, so to speak, against burn-out? Regular church-going does a couple things that are be a bulwark against burnout. One, it establishes a rhythm to life, not only the weekly pattern of a day of worship and rest, but the rhythm of the seasons of a liturgical year. There are season for feasting and seasons for fasting, season for action and others for reflection. Now time is more or less flattened into go-go, work-work all the time without a larger, sacred frame.

Another thing religious participation reliably did was restore perspective. You go to worship and are reminded it’s not all about you, the world is bigger, the story longer, the future more open than you thought when you were having a bad day earlier in the week. And you are reminded that the suffering you experience, which tends to isolate us, is actually the thing we most have in common with one another. All of these contribute to a regular renewal of the spirit and check burnout’s isolation and depletion.

Lepore’s second theory about the ubiquity of burnout she terms, “the conditions of late capitalism.” What that seems to mean is capitalism, which has its virtues, has in the last 40 years had less restraint on its vices, with the result that more pressure falls on the individual. With institutions diminished, the public sector often operating on a shoe-string, and safety-nets cut, people are more on their own to cope with recessions, dislocations and disasters.

There’s another aspect of this pressure on individuals, one I mentioned in connection with Andrew Root’s recent book on modernity as acceleration. The new imperative of this time is individual “self-optimization.” Sin is the failure to live a fully self-optimized life. If you’re not living your best life now, well, whose fault is that?

So, there’s a cottage industry (a really big-cottage at that, maybe a city of cottages?) of burnout literature and websites, diagnoses and fixes. “11 Strategies for Coping,” and “7 Habits of the Successful,” on and on it goes. Just considering it all that makes you feel kind of, well, burnt out.

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