When I sent a short story by email to The New Yorker about a character who had inherited half a million dollars and decided to put it into gold, I was startled to find that on my various news sites and my Facebook pages the ads became all about ways to buy gold.
Then I bought some sweaters and winter clothes, and I began seeing ads from places like Gap, Garnet Hill, and L.L. Bean offering good deals on clothes. I realized that the algorithms of the social media world were tracking me.
Lately, however, within every webpage I visit, I get an ad from an outfit called DDI that shows a series of photos of a matchstick — first unused, then igniting, then progressively burning. The ad screams that “60 percent of leaders feel used up,” urging potential customers to get something called a “GLF report.”
I didn’t write anything and send anything that had anything to do with burnout, but now this ad is ubiquitous for me online. Everywhere I go I find it—Facebook, The Washington Post, The New York Times, CNN.
It’s like the algorithms are trying to tell me something.
* * *
I personally resist the concept of burnout, since I like to think that I am tough. I have made it through some hard times in my life. It seems self-indulgent in a way to claim that one is burnt out.
Still, I woke up recently feeling blue, and I decided to put on some old-school rock ’n’ roll: Neil Young’s “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black),” from the Live Rust album. And there it was on YouTube: a small box ad over the video of the song: “60 percent of leaders feel used up.”
It must be true. I’m burned out. I am exhausted.
I would never let my work flag, and I have a kind, smiling face for every student or colleague I meet, and I have no more fear for the future than I ever have.
But I just feel tired.
Sometimes I think that I did not need to live so long in history to see the pain and cruelty of this moment. I remember JFK’s assassination, I remember all the assassinations, I remember Vietnam and Chile, El Salvador, and Nicaragua — I remember everything.
There have been times in my life when things have seemed to be getting better, but now it can seem that every bit of progress that has been made during my lifetime is being erased.
The pandemic has made us fearful and crushed our spirits — a recent news story profiled 200,000 orphans left behind from the pandemic in the United States and informed us that they are “falling through the cracks.”
The economic and political realities of the United States are so fucked up that it is almost impossible to speak of them without wanting to punch a wall out.
The war on Ukraine by the Russians brings us right back to 1939 — as if no one ever learned anything from the Second World War, so we need a third one to remind us.
There’s not so much to say about any of this, except I think most of us feel it or else we are not paying attention.
Though even then, I think we still feel it. We just don’t know quite why.
* * *
T.S. Eliot wrote that “April is the cruelest month,” and that’s true — we go from one warm, sunny day to three days of rain, like living with someone who has a personality disorder. It has been a long winter.
The hard thing for me is this pretense that we are all doing OK. We’re not — or at least most of us are not. These are difficult times.
When I was younger, I studied Shakespeare’s play King Lear a lot — I’ve read the play often enough to have almost memorized it. It is the greatest tragedy I know.
The core of the play is about the way in which falsehood and love play out in the world, and how someone can lose track of love when falsehood is skillfully presented in language.
Cordelia loves her father, but he can’t hear it in her language, and he banishes her. Then he goes mad when his false daughters banish him. It is almost a fairy tale in its organization.
The tragedy comes most deeply when Lear is saved from madness by Cordelia and she welcomes him back into her love. Then she is murdered, and the play ends with Lear howling with his dead daughter in his arms just before he dies.
There is no real moral to the story, no redemption to find in the last lines at the end of the play by the few people who have survived the apocalyptic ending.
These lines come closest to having any meaning, spoken by Edgar: “The weight of this sad time we must obey,/Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”
I think these are good words to live by.
* * *
There is honestly nothing good to say about current reality, at least in any general sense. These are hard times in the world, the worst that I have ever known. This age will not end well, at least not in any way I can see in my own lifetime.
But things change over time — history is long, and there have been other bad interludes.
I resist the concepts of exhaustion, of burnout, of giving up. Each new day is its own new day.
John Keats wrote that “beauty is truth, and truth is beauty.” There is much beauty in the world, if we can see it.
But the real deal is truth — to say what we feel, not what we ought to say.
Perhaps one way to mend this broken world is for truth to be our guide.