I’m appalled by the amount of burnout that’s coming into my office on a daily basis. Many corporate veterans stumble into therapy, harrowed, hollowed out from their daily grind. Often they have created a lifestyle that keeps them painfully tethered to a rigid schedule, to flawed systems that bribe them with bonuses and shiny toys while they steal their very life force. Their intimate relationships have withered from years of neglect. Silent, desperately exhausted date nights, high anxiety, terminal insomnia and multiple health issues (IBS, high cholesterol, hypertension, addiction) stalk their waking hours. On the couch they stare ahead with a fixed gaze, saying things like…”I don’t know how this happened…” or “my wife wants to leave me” or “I just need a couple more years and then I’ll have enough”. Their children are often starving for a loving gaze, a gentle touch… much like they did when they were their children’s age. Sometimes they tie themselves to a mountain bike, or gym contact, or a whisky bottle in a vain attempt to fend off the inevitability of decay, productivity becomes the god they pay their tithe to.
These new corporate gods proselytize about employee wellness, wringing their hands in mock dismay as they simultaneously count the cost of daily absenteeism. The poor buggers they have eviscerated are desperate to be viewed in a good light, anxious overachievers…working themselves empty to wring a golden glimpse of management’s brief, affirming gaze. Always soul- hungry…always tired.
“How we spend our days,” Annie Dillard memorably wrote in her soul-stretching meditation on the life of presence, “is, of course, how we spend our lives.” And yet most of us spend our days in what Kierkegaard believed to be our greatest source of unhappiness — a refusal to recognize that “busy is a decision” and that presence is infinitely more rewarding than productivity. I frequently worry that being ‘productive’ is the surest way to lull ourselves into a trance of passivity and busyness the greatest distraction from living, as we coast through our lives day after day, showing up for our obligations but being absent from our selves, mistaking the doing for the being.
Despite a steadily swelling human life expectancy, these concerns seem more urgent than ever — and yet they are hardly unique to our age. In fact, they go as far back as the record of human experience and endeavor. It is unsurprising, then, that the best treatment of the subject is also among the oldest: Roman philosopher Seneca’s spectacular 2,000-year-old treatise On the Shortness of Life— a poignant reminder of what we so deeply intuit yet so easily forget and so chronically fail to put into practice.
Seneca writes: (complements of Brainpickings)
“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it.”
I too know the perils, but knowing is not enough.
Action is required.
So I encourage us all to reflect during this holiday period, to set aside the stress that is inherent in Christmas shopping and family dramas, to just pause for an hour or two and reflect on how you are spending your precious life.