struck a chord with millions of readers,
Elizabeth Wurtzel writes, “I don’t want
any more of this try, try again stuff. I just want out. I’ve had it. I am so
I am 20 and I am already exhausted.” Despite the fact that we are
surrounded by labor-saving devices, despite the elevation of convenience
and comfort above almost all other values, a
profound sense of tiredness seems to be one of the defining features of
modern life. And our world is as exhausted as we are. Our ecosystems are
stretched far beyond their limits, and social structures like families and
communities battle for survival.
The natural response to tiredness is to rest. Modern consumer culture,
however, doesn’t like rest; “time is money,” we are told. Every second
saved by a dishwasher or a car must be paid back double in longer working
hours. In the gym, exercise (which is freely available in the nearest
park) is sold at exclusive rates so that we can do it while we’re watching
television. Even rest itself is commercialized and repackaged as
Returning to truly replenishing forms of rest would demand a reevaluation
of tiredness—all the different kinds, each of which leads to negative
personal, social, and ecological consequences. In doing so, we would
address the problem of unsustainability, which is, after all, the essence
When we are tired, we know we cannot carry on in the same way for long. In
evaluating all the ways we’re tired, we confront what makes life
unsustainable. For us, and for our world.
First, there’s sleepiness. When we do not sleep properly, our brains run
on depleted energy; compassion, creativity, imagination, and reason are
lost, and the reptilian fight-or-flight brain takes over. Some
psychiatrists have suggested that depression is a symptom of sleep loss,
rather than the other way around. A shortage of sleep is associated with
obesity, road accidents, torture, and war.
In ecological terms, 24-hour culture means more emissions and more
consumption of the earth’s limited resources; we find ways to justify new
runways, new wars, space tourism, and drilling for oil under melting
The solution, of course, is sleep When the emperor of Persia asked his
Sufi master how best to renew his soul, he was told to sleep as much as
possible because “The longer you sleep, the less you will oppress!” We
sacrifice sleep for time, but that time becomes less fulfilling—and robs
the earth of resources.
Another kind of tiredness is fatigue: a tiredness of activity. We live in
a hyperactive culture where more is continually demanded of us. Unions
have to fight to maintain vacation allowances and workday limits. Life
proceeds at a pace that belongs not to the human scale, but to the
industrial scale. Fossil fuels allow us to travel great distances at
inhuman speeds without feeling tired. The tiredness we would have felt
does not disappear, but is displaced onto the ecosystems that support our
existence. It turns out that the toddler who observed the airplane
“scratching the sky” was right.
I used to look askance at evangelical Christian athletes who would not
compete on a Sunday. Now I think we should follow their example. We are
tempted to avoid rest because we think we will produce more, but what we
produce is less wonderful.
We should also consider ennui, which is tiredness of stasis. Ennui is all
about that feeling of being stuck in a rut, of going nowhere. It is
extraordinary that in our hyperactive society so many people are bored.
Bored young people hang around the streets causing trouble. Bored soldiers
commit acts of atrocity in military prisons. Workers are forced to choose
between the boredom of the production line and the boredom of
unemployment. Television, computer games, and prescription drugs
temporarily screen us from the effects of boredom, but it comes back to
haunt us in poor mental health, addiction, crime, and disease.
It seems logical that the antidote to ennui is activity. However, as we
have seen, we are very active—even hyperactive. We need to replace
activities that isolate mind from body with activities that involve the
whole person in a valuable process. There are many sources of wisdom to
help us here. Gandhi viewed work as sacred. Dutch historian Johan Huizinga
showed how play is fundamental to human welfare, and the Kama Sutra
explores the spiritual significance of sex. Martial arts generally
developed as forms of meditation, ritualizing movement in order to
replenish body and mind. In agriculture, one alternative to a static
monoculture is crop rotation: Moving the crop replenishes the soil.
Perhaps the most prevalent form of tiredness in our society is satiation,
tiredness of consumption. Our society has an obesity problem that extends
far beyond the body mass index. Shopping is a chief “leisure activity.” We
continue to consume rapaciously because we are wedded to ownership, but
the real effects of satiation are unwelcome. They first show up in the
environment, where the raw materials for all this consumption must be
found. Then they appear in unequal societies and unjust legislation that
favors the obscenely wealthy.
The answer is sacrifice. Every year Muslims fast during daylight hours for
the month of Ramadan. This is a striking example of the use of sacrifice
for the benefit of an entire community. Christians and Jews tithe. Sikhs
practice hospitality and share food; monks take vows of poverty;
vegetarians and vegans refrain from eating meat; ethical consumers refuse
to buy the shiny trinkets that are constantly advertised.
We are increasingly aware that capitalism is failing to make sense for our
lives; money is not making us happy. But many of us who are ready to
change are not aware of any alternative. So we carry on rushing around,
making money, buying temporary happiness.
In a culture so dependent on activity—on consuming, producing, and
achieving—rest becomes a radical form of protest and a catalyst
Matt Carmichael is a writer, teacher, and activist.