Another Week Ends

Burnout, Self-Discovery, Spite, Forgiveness, and the Silent Treatment

Todd Brewer / 5.14.21

She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse.

The above description of an ailing woman in Mark 5 is one that’s always struck a chord with me. She’s suffered for 12 years without a cure, having spent everything she had to be healed, only to end up worse off than before. Perpetually afflicted, and yet unable to find health. More than an example of unintended consequences, this unnamed woman’s dilemma is the same as everyone’s: the solutions we find for ourselves so often make things worse in the end.

1. We search and search for the root of our misfortunes, hoping for a remedy, and the easiest target we find is our jobs. We are burnt out, and quitting them has become an ultimate form of self-prescribed care, what Katie Heaney calls “the Clock-Out Cure.” If you’re burnt out at your work, fantasizing of a new job with more freedom, fewer late nights, and more personal satisfaction, this article comes as a heavy dose of reality. The issue isn’t your boss who emails in the middle of the night or the company exacting your soul in exchange for health benefits. You adversary probably lives a little closer to home:

Today we use burnout as a catchall term, a word to describe the entire maelstrom of emotion endemic to working life in 2021: anxiety, grief, boredom, exhaustion. One viable cure, it appears, is to quit your job.

Once upon a time, quitting carried negative connotations — weakness of spirit, an un-American lack of discipline. But in recent years, it has become increasingly fashionable to say no. Therapists, career coaches, and influencers alike now push the power of recusing oneself: “No, I won’t take on extra work without added compensation.” “No, I won’t attend the party with people I don’t even like.” “No, I won’t accept a date just to spare someone else’s feelings.” If guarding one’s time became an act of self-empowerment, the ultimate move, then, would be to leave life’s most time-consuming obligation entirely. Today, boldly ditching your job is seen as a radical form of self-care. It’s not only healthy but brave — even aspirational.

But for those who claim the burnout diagnosis, who feel the nudge toward quitting, Heaney is not here to cheer you on.

Burnout is an attractive diagnosis for the self-aggrandizing; it suggests that one’s job is uniquely draining, almost to the point of a medical emergency. It’s also a predominantly white-collar condition. For those who can afford to quit, claiming burnout may be an effective way to signal one’s essential employability, a way to reassure your future bosses that you will work yourself to the bone for them, too — right after this break. […]

[T]he Korean-born German philosopher Byung-Chul Han argues that burnout is modern society’s most pervasive affliction, the natural result of “excess positivity,” by which he means capitalism’s unflagging belief in the power of individual productivity. If Zoom and other technologies made many jobs technically possible throughout a year of death and isolation, they also promoted the idea that continuing to work as usual amid unrelenting global suffering was emotionally and spiritually feasible. For many people, it turns out, it wasn’t. As Han explains, “The complaint of the depressive individual, ‘Nothing is possible,’ can only occur in a society that thinks, ‘Nothing is impossible.’”

Having transcended the Cold War’s reactive politics and fear of the foreign, Han argues, we’ve become “achievement-subjects” rather than “obedience-subjects.” Ostensibly freed from external dictatorship and bodily threat, we are left to rule ourselves, and we are merciless: “The exhausted, depressive achievement-subject grinds itself down, so to speak … Entirely incapable of stepping outward, of standing outside itself, of relying on the Other, it locks its jaws on itself; paradoxically, this leads the self to hollow and empty out.” Under Han’s theory of contemporary burnout, we are the snake eating its own tail.

Burnout happens when a society expecting the impossible combines with our own aggrandized sense of self-worth. Not only is the grass not greener on the other side, changing jobs because of burnout is a recipe for continued burnout. The uniform may change, but you’re still the same you wearing it.

2. If our job isn’t what ails us, we might identify other people as the source of our predicament. Having deemed someone else to be the one who has wronged you, or who does not contribute to your personal flourishing, or who simply misunderstands you, you lash out at them. Today our anger (a topic I’ve been thinking about recently) readily manifests in spiteful disdain: attempting to harm others at personal cost. As told by Charlie Tyson this week:

Spite defies logic. We act spitefully — lashing out to harm someone else, even at a cost to ourselves — when the desire to punish overrides other considerations. People in the throes of spite’s poisonous pleasures do not care if they injure themselves, or make the whole world worse off, so long as they satisfy their rancor. Yet because spite involves a self-inflicted cost, this petty and ultimately antisocial emotion bears a family resemblance to altruism. Many spiteful actors believe they are behaving nobly: meting out justice where it is due.

Spite is a symptom of social breakdown. But it is not a trustworthy guide to fair action. This ugly feeling is self-multiplying: It tends to lead not toward justice but toward more spite.

[O]ur judgments about who needs to be “put in their place” are frequently defective. A spiteful politics is one in which the immiserated majority fights for scraps while the rich carry on as usual. We cannot “punish” our way to a less punitive society.

One might add that we can’t punish our way to reconciliation. The anger we direct at others (and ourselves) might feel satisfying. But as with any form of judgment, spite is an imperfect tool that usually makes matters worse.

3. When spite fails, the the next logical recourse is to cut someone off. They are the toxic friend. You create better boundaries. The mute button on social media cleanses your timeline. Writing in the Atlantic, Daryl Austin explores our use of “the silent treatment” and other forms of exclusion. It turns out that cutting off a relationship has more adverse effects than expected.

The silent treatment might be employed by passive personality types to avoid conflict and confrontation, while strong personality types use it to punish or control. Some people may not even consciously choose it at all. … But regardless of the reason for the silent treatment, it can be received by victims as ostracism.

One study found that social rejection provoked a response in its victims similar to that of victims of physical abuse; the anterior cingulate cortex area of the brain—the area thought to interpret emotion and pain—was active in both instances. “Exclusion and rejection literally hurt,” John Bargh, a psychology professor at Yale, told me.

But the silent treatment ultimately harms the person causing it, too. Humans are predisposed to reciprocate social cues, so ignoring someone goes against our nature, Williams said. The perpetrator is therefore forced to justify the behavior in order to keep doing it; they keep in mind all the reasons they’re choosing to ignore someone. “You end up living in a constant state of anger and negativity,” Williams said.

Worse, the silent treatment can become addictive. The father who couldn’t force himself to speak to his son again suffered the way many addicts suffer—through repeating an activity despite knowing its harm. … “It’s psychological quicksand.”

It’s perhaps telling that so many attempts to turn over a new leaf and start a new life usually coincide with ghosting a large group of people — usually family (I’ve seen this too many times to count). Cutting people off doesn’t lessen the anger but only preserves the bitterness indefinitely.

4. In humor this week, the Onion sends a heat-seeking torpedo at parents who pass the blame off on to their kids: “Parents Can’t Believe How Bad Daughter Is At Being Raised By Them.”

“It’s frustrating, we care, but she just isn’t putting any effort into being loved by us at all,” said father Russel, who claimed that Sophia has neglected her duties to instill a strong work ethic in herself and encourage herself to pursue enriching hobbies. “Even when she was a baby she would just lie there, no interest at all in meeting us halfway. She’s distant, we’ll come home in a miserable mood and she won’t even bother to ask us what’s wrong.”

Along the same lines, the Hard Times skewers husbands who think they’re pulling more than their fair share: “Alarming New Study Finds I’m The Only One in This House That Knows How to Refill the Goddamn Brita Filter.” Little Old Lady Comedy has the perfectly timed, post-mask life parody: “I’m Just An Acquaintance Who’s Just About To Point Out Everything That’s Wrong With You.”

But the best of this week comes to us from McSweeney’s, who hilariously points out a huge plot loophole in the beloved family classic, The Parent Trap. How did I not see that before?

5. The Paris Review published a superb piece by Meghan O’Gieblyn on the quest for identity and self-discovery. She approaches the question from a variety of angles to argue that who we are is largely hidden from us; we are a mystery to ourselves. Strangers remark about characteristics we didn’t think we possessed (good or bad) and even the sound of our voice played over a recording doesn’t seem like us.

Everyone believes they are the foremost authority on their own soul. For millennia, philosophers have argued otherwise. Plotinus was the first to point out that self-knowledge entails a weird self-doubling. If we are able to know ourselves, who is doing the knowing? And what is it, exactly, that is known? Schopenhauer called this predicament Weltknoten, the “world knot,” a paradox that many modern philosophers have solved by eliminating, wholesale, the interior view. The self is a bourgeois construct, a grammatical mistake, a software program designed to model potential actions and assess their survival payoffs.

It’s an unnerving thought for anyone, though especially for those of us who feel most ourselves when alone. When I was younger, my sense of self appeared most clearly when I was cloistered from the world and then disappeared the moment I was forced to interact with others. […]

If a soul exists only in private, can it be said to exist at all? […]

What we want is to see the self objectively—not from any particular view but from a perspective that is neutral, impartial, and eternal. This is why we invented God, the original view from nowhere, a consciousness floating high in the ether, untainted by the spatial and temporal, capable of seeing the entire world sub specie aeternitatis [from the standpoint of eternity].

Ruling out a God’s-eye view of our identity (which is not one I’d recommend), O’Gieblyn tests out a variety of other sources of self-knowledge. Algorithms can only know “people like you.” Social media might promise a young teen limitless self-expression, a mirror with which to see herself:

But when she scrolls through her posts years later, won’t she, too, find that her self has solidified, that the idol has betrayed her? Words, once they leave the mind, become part of the material, mechanical world: they keep saying the same things.

O’Gieblyn offers incisive commentary on the question of self-discovery, but it left me wondering why such an exploration was necessary or good. If our self-estrangement is a reflection of our estrangement from God (being a sinner isn’t easy), the vanity of the question of our identity, when directed elsewhere, is a more-than-real possibility. For O’Gieblyn, the closest approximation to knowing one’s real self comes through friendship, though this strikes me as a dangerous enterprise, prone to self-projection and an instrumentalizing of relationships. It is precisely the differences between friends that enables friendship to most closely approximate love (namely, forgiveness).

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6. Speaking of forgiveness, Tim Keller published a lengthy essay over at Cardus on the cultural fading of forgiveness. He begins by assessing much of the underpinnings of recent social debates, articulating just how far our current discourse has traveled from the ideals of the 1960s civil rights protest. This might sound provocative were it not for the subdued-to-open disregard of Martin Luther King’s emphasis on forgiveness. Admittedly, the broad brush of his commentary is a little too reductive. Even still, Keller’s point isn’t to offer an expansive commentary and assessment on the value or rightness of cancel culture, but to explore how we got here and to then outline what Christianity might offer today. Forgiveness, he argues, is the one solution we don’t want to try, but it’s also the only thing that might save us.

[W]e are taught self-realization and assertion, that your happiness, interests, and needs always come first. A culture promoting self-maximization, one that pits self-fulfillment against self-sacrifice, will usually produce revenge or withdrawal as a response to any mistreatment, while a counterculture teaching self-renunciation will much more likely produce forgiveness as a response. “Most of us have been formed by a culture that nourishes revenge and mocks grace,” the authors conclude. In such a therapeutic culture, forgiveness is seen as self-hating, and revenge and anger will be seen as more authentic, as long as you do not let the anger become too unpleasant for your inner psychological well-being.

Forgiveness is seen now as radically unjust and impractical, as short-circuiting the ability of victims to gain honour and virtue as others rise to defend them.

It’s no wonder that this culture quickly becomes littered with enormous numbers of broken and now irreparable relationships. Politics itself becomes a new kind of religion, one without any means of acquiring redemption or forgiveness. Rather then seeing some people as right and others as mistaken, they are now regarded as the good and the evil, as true believers or heretics. […]

The most obvious contribution that the church could make is to recover its own theology and practice of forgiveness and become a true counterculture that can serve as a witness to the world. Arendt goes so far as to say that “the Discoverer of the role of forgiveness in the realm of human affairs was Jesus of Nazareth. The fact that he made this discovery in a religious context and articulated it in religious language is no reason to take it any less seriously in a strictly secular sense.” Arendt is right that secular people can use forgiveness to great benefit, but Christian faith provides many more resources for it. It is our responsibility to renew the biblical teaching on forgiveness and to show the world the unique resources both Christian belief and Christian community give us for it.