We’ve just had a long weekend end, said to be a great Australian institution, but I wonder how many of us ever in fact now go somewhere without any contact with our work. We are so available, by phone or email or text message, social media and the like. Although we have more designated weeks of annual leave than generations past, I suspect that we actually have less recreation. In many workplaces, staff are accumulating annual leave rather than taking their full entitlement—perhaps because of fear of losing their jobs. Maybe, too, we have somehow lost something of the ability to take a break.
It’s worth thinking about. Last week, while rummaging through some old books, I found a notebook in which I wrote down some things from a weekend magazine about ‘Baby Boomer Burnout’. It was a series of articles about ‘an angst born of affluence’. (I wonder why I wrote all this down? Actually I don’t: I know I was seeing it all around me and trying to ensure it didn’t happen to me!)
Here is the personal reflection of one person:
In a personal sense, I felt I was doing rather than being. I think that men are often caught up with creating an impression and then trying to manage that impression. I wanted to feel less of an image, and more of a person. I wanted to grow personally as well as in a knowledge sense. It was time to do something and I grew sick of waiting for it. I just went out and did it.’
The story that followed explained that this man felt the need to move, geographically, in order to express the change in himself. It’s interesting to note the idea of waiting for his future to come to him—and realizing that it doesn’t always work like that.
From the same articles I recorded this comment from a person named Val Newton-John, a psychologist:
It’s a stage you reach where life and work does not offer adequate fulfillment and challenge. Whatever security is provided, however great, is not adequate compensation for becoming one of the walking dead.
Another writer spoke of the emotional malaise of this time and generation: ‘they (we) seek closeness with others but, fearful of entrapment that might slow them down, they fail to achieve any real intimacy.’
I found so much that rings true in these observations of the lives many people I know lead, in our acute busyness and yet loneliness. Last week I read Amanda Lohrey’s new book, A Short History of Richard Kline. It’s an unusual novel, with chapters alternating between the first person and the third person. It tells the story of a man growing up and reaching into mid life, marriage and career success, yet always feeling that something is missing. He engages in sustained searching, especially through a practice of meditation, sometimes to the extent of frantic activity trying to relax into peace. The irony is surely intended. I’m not sure that I accept the suggestion that this book is ‘a study in masculinity’, whatever that might mean. Nor am I sure it’s a really good book. But it does again show something of that malaise and angst I’ve been writing about.
What does it signify? Many things, I suggest. One of them is sheer boredom. We have so much, so much entertainment and so much stimulation, in a sense we can’t take any more and yet always feel we need more. We’re addicted to whatever comes next. We find it so hard to be where we are, full stop.
This is different from being busy. Last week, with a colleague, we were reflecting on the value of being busy. We both enjoy being busy, and in that sense making the best use of our time and abilities. I said, though, that it pains me is someone says to me that they didn’t call me or come to talk with me about something because ‘I know you’re a busy person.’ That pains me because I never want to be too busy for those who need me. Sometimes I am busy with those who don’t really need me! Being busy has to be managed, and part of managing it is making sure that even in a day full of meetings and commitments, there are short spaces for being with oneself, with friends and family: laughing and enjoying being together. I think one hint here is to make sure that you don’t use meal times for meetings. Sometimes this has to happen, but I try to avoid it if at all possible. I have refused breakfast meetings, all my life, for exactly this reason. There have to be times when we are not working. No one is that important!
Something else I have found is that we need to be stretched. Fulfillment in our work, and in life in general, come from feeling that we have done something worthwhile, something that perhaps took us into a new area of interest, skill or challenge. I have long been challenged by a paragraph in Morris west’s novel Daughter of Silence. He writes of the main character Landon, a psychiatrist of middle age: ‘So far opportunity had eluded him and he had lapsed by slow degree into frustration and the tart dissatisfaction of those who are challenged always within the stretch of their talent.’
What a wonderful insight!—challenged always within the stretch of one’s talent. In other words, not really challenged at all. We do need challenge and some level of stress in order to do well. It’s not just about avoiding being ‘one of the walking dead’. To be truly alive is more than that: it means face into the wind, pressing forward, striving for something really worthwhile.
For what? Well, that takes some thinking about: a very good reason for a long weekend!