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Burnout and the Struggle for Contemplation

American capitalism makes it difficult for workers to enjoy the self-emptying ecstasy and profound relaxation characteristic of a deep spiritual life. 
Young,Artist,Painting,An,Autumn,Landscape

In The Burnout Society, Korean-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han gives philosophical expression to an issue rooted in the lived experience of the inhabitants of the developed world. Burnout, in Han’s analysis, is the psychic effect of a culture of achievement, in which the individual is doomed to exploit himself as a laborer for the purpose of his own self-production as a commodity. He is an “entrepreneur of himself,” to whom the life of contemplation is materially and psychologically foreclosed. Closed in upon himself and enslaved to labor by his own self-compulsion, he becomes narcissistic and hyperactive, incapable of enjoying the self-emptying ecstasy and profound relaxation that are characteristic of a deep spiritual life. 

Han’s critique is partly inspired by the Aristotelian conception of what makes a person happy. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle writes that “happiness is thought to depend on leisure; for we are busy that we may have leisure, and make war that we may live in peace.” Busy-ness, or labor, is useful only for the sake of the loftier aim of contemplation, which requires leisure. This ethic stands in contrast with one more familiar to the inhabitants of capitalist society, which treats leisure as no more than a tool for regenerating one’s energy for further labor. For Aristotle, it is more natural to desire leisure for its own sake. From this perspective, one might look upon burnout as a sign of our society’s inverted priorities.

Recent developments in the world of labor indicate that young people may be waking up to this inversion. In a recent collection of essays titled “Future of Work” published at Vox, several pieces touch on burnout, including this story about Generation Z’s refusal of the culture of work. The article cites several young people disillusioned with a “hustle culture” that leaves them burnt out and depressed. Similarly, some are rejecting the culture of ambition and achievement that characterizes the professional world. Instead, they choose a life of leisure and love, of humble ambition and domestic quietude, free from the artificial demands of the workplace meritocracy. As one young person interviewed said, “I simply want to live my life slowly and lay down in a bed of moss with my lover and enjoy the rest of my existence reading books, creating art, and loving myself and the people in my life.” 

Such sentiments were at least partially responsible for the “Great Resignation” of 2021, when scores of people across the country (especially the young) quit their jobs and went on to pursue either higher-paying jobs, more free time, or both. The mass wave of resignations showed temporary signs of workers’ collective bargaining power, prompting many businesses to raise salaries and lower entry requirements, achieving the same ends that traditional strikes were meant to effect.

While the Great Resignation was not a coordinated movement on the part of labor, the movement of young people away from a culture hyper-focused on the hustle of modern work represents a real rebellion against the dominant economic paradigm of post-industrial capitalism. The desire to spend more time in leisure, enjoying the life of a dilettante, an artist, or a lover, rather than a life devoted to the pursuit of worldly success, is a significant shift away from the status quo. To recall Byung-Chul Han’s analysis, it represents a potential shift away from a life of self-exploitative hyperactivity towards a life of contemplation.

This is a shift that conservatives who claim to care about culture ought to welcome with open arms. One reason to preserve the great achievements of Western culture is for those young people who crave such things over meaningless labor and self-centered ambition. Rather than spend their lives doing nothing but work and make money, they desire to enjoy the cultural goods that have, for much of modern history, been reserved to an aristocratic class. This is a noble desire. If there were ever a reason to preserve such goods and extend their enjoyment to all of humanity—if there were ever a reason for a genuinely cultural conservatism to exist—this is it.

This phenomenon contains a lesson on the relationship between culture and economics. The stated motives behind the Great Resignation demonstrate that certain economic preconditions need to be met in order for ordinary people to enjoy the cultural goods that conservatives professedly wish to preserve for posterity. An economy that leads to an epidemic of burnout and fatigue certainly does not meet these preconditions. A life of contemplative leisure in such an economy is, at best, possible only for the privileged or monks. If conservatives have any desire to preserve the cultural achievements of humanity for the enjoyment of the masses, it is imperative that they consider making those economic changes to make it possible. Simply letting the free market run its course will not do.

Of course, not all who quit their jobs during Covid-19 and then cruised along on cushy unemployment checks spent their newly acquired leisure time reading books, creating art, and communing with their loved ones. In another article in the Vox collection, Jonathan Malesic, a retired Catholic theologian and acclaimed author of the recent book The End of Burnout, acknowledged this grim reality: “[W]orking-age adults who chose to stay out of the workforce were inviting a ‘fundamentally degrading’ purposelessness into their lives. Out-of-work men… spend their time not in contributing to their communities but in front of screens: watching TV, playing video games.” 

This is not the noble leisure of the dilettante, the artist, or the aspiring mystic. Yet it speaks to the same social ills to which aspiring contemplatives from the working classes are reacting. The grown adult who spends his leisure in “fundamentally degrading” activities is not someone who has come to grips with his own burnout. On the contrary, this is someone who even in his fatigue cannot resist his addiction to ego-centered hyper-activity and hyper-stimulation, the same pathologies that motivate the “self-entrepreneurs” of the workplace. 

The psychic conditions of burnout can, in many ways, be treated on an individual level, with therapeutic remedies as well as by cultivating of a more mindful and spiritual way of life. Such remedies are indeed critical for the survival of the soul in a world burdened by the toil of the body. However, since the conditions that cause burnout are not only individual, but also social and economic, a solution must also be sought at a societal level. What sort of changes would free working people from the plague of burnout, and teach them to enjoy the arts of contemplative leisure?  

In the above cited article, Malesic draws attention to one simple but important component of such a program: “Higher wages and shorter hours: The way to tame work is almost too obvious.” Indeed, this seems only too obvious and too simple, yet we continue to inhabit an economy that places high value on long work weeks, and little value on high wages. What is more, we continue to live in a predominantly service-sector economy, bloated by an overabundance of what the anarchist David Graeber called “bulls–t jobs,” jobs whose only purpose is to keep the machine of work running, while contributing nothing actually meaningful to society. In other words, if Graeber is right, a whole sector of unnecessary jobs could be erased from the American economy and its workers funneled into productive jobs, leading to a dramatic reduction in total work hours and a dramatic increase in productivity, which would, in turn, yield more than enough revenue to be paid out in higher wages. 

However, shorter hours and higher wages would be only half of the solution. The details of our everyday lives would have to undergo a fundamental shift at the societal as well as the individual level. Many “cultural” changes as well as economic changes would have to be implemented, with the express purpose of teaching people how to use their leisure in a way that is truly ennobling. In the private sector, classical schools are enjoying something of a renaissance throughout the country as they seek to cultivate a contemplative disposition in their students. But for this project to be extended to all of society, it must also be a political project, one which takes for its motto the reverse of the old Breitbartian rule that “politics is downstream of culture.”

A political project to foster a more contemplative culture might entail a diverse list of policies and programs. The utopian imagination runs wild: We could fund the construction of new schools and venues for the fine and liberal arts; nationalize the internet and deactivate online shopping platforms every so often (say, on Sundays); crack down on immoral forms of consumption such as pornography and drug abuse; mandate the construction of public spaces that are truly beautiful and conducive to reflection, et cetera. The possibilities are truly endless. 

Of course, ultimately, it may only be a radical religious revival that can make a life of contemplation a universal reality. But it is possible to think of at least a few necessary first steps that a new conservative political movement might take to pave the way for such a revival. The first step is to consider which of the following is more important to the good life, and which deserves more to be conserved: the work ethic that ends in depression and burnout, or the ethic of leisure for the sake of contemplation? 

Jonathan Culbreath is a writer living in Southern California. His writing has appeared in publications such as The American Conservative, the Daily Caller, the Bellows, National Catholic RegisterAmerica Magazine, and others. He is an assistant editor at The Josias, a website dedicated to the revival of Catholic political doctrine.

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