Burnout By Any Other Name…

It’s never a good sign when the art that most enlivens you begins to feel draining, when staring at the wall feels more restful than engaging with an introspective song or a lyrical passage in a book.

The term burnout has been bandied about in recent years, most regularly ascribed to someone whose work-related stress has placed them on the spectrum of mildly-drained-to-emotionally-destitute. It reached peak buzzword when journalist Anne Helen Petersen claimed it as the ultimate millennial problem. In actuality, it’s closer to workplace-induced depression. But burnout has cache, while depression does not.

On some level depression makes sense. When music and books and film—the creative pursuits that provoke a hearty thrum in your spirit—stop feeling meaningful, it’s a symptom of a larger problem. And people with depression tend to withdraw from activities they formerly enjoyed.

But while burnout has become a catchall diagnosis for work’s never-ending demands and the physical, psychological, and emotional effects of those pressures, I find that its meaning (even as a form of depression) has fallen increasingly short. Because it’s used to describe such a sweeping experience, and because the means to overcome it remain hazy at best, it feels more nebulous than ever.

One phrase I recently stumbled upon has offered a new perspective. In Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, he describes a time in his life that many would now equate with burnout. But he called it “spiritually empty.” Perhaps it’s just a matter of semantics, but, for me, “spiritual exhaustion” gets closer to the problem.

And why wouldn’t it? Late stage capitalism has turned us into products as much as we’re expected to produce. We are noun and verb, operating in an endless sentence. As Frederic Jameson explained, under capitalism “everything, everywhere, became commodified and consumable.” In such a society, our spirituality exists only in and for the marketplace.

It’s an exhausting churn that would leave anyone emotionally bereft, looking for meaning but unable to pursue it because we’re too exhausted from the never-ending demands of our day and the roles we’re meant to play therein. We produce, we acquire, we consume, the result of which leaves us vacant and untethered.

I mention all of this, on a music blog no less, because it’s been a strange summer for me. I have the freedom, time, and space to listen to music as late and as long as I’d like, but the amount I’ve read and written about it—two sides of a coin that I’ve long enjoyed tossing—has significantly decreased. I cannot bring myself to sit still long enough to get lost in a book, and, perhaps more frightening, I do not want to sit down to write.

Under contemporary lexicon, it’s burnout, but the more powerful claim seems to be spiritual emptiness. It’s a deep and abiding malaise, which makes sense given the ongoing pandemic, the cult-like adherence to misinformation, climate emergencies, increasingly restrictive legislature, and any number of new and pressing crises that arise on a now-daily basis. It’s been a season ripe for anxiety and the result, it would seem, has been a lingering spiritual emptiness. 

I don’t know the answer—or the antidote, for that matter. I don’t know the way back to creative pursuits that require energy when I feel so depleted. “Unplugging” from what my friend calls the “distraction industrial complex” and choosing instead to play records from my finite collection has helped to a small degree. Lately, I’ve been burrowing into the sounds of Allen Toussaint’s 2012 album The Bright Mississippi. The way he practically tap dances over the piano feels akin to a balm, a kind of deep breath that I didn’t know I needed to take.

Playing Toussaint and other records isn’t going to solve the larger issue of burnout, spiritual emptiness, or whatever you want to call it. But it does offer a brief rest, one that can hopefully feed the spirit until you’re nourished enough to keep going—and maybe one day eventually sated enough to thrive.