I am not a particularly spiritual person. Knowledge about my energies is more caffeine-based than metaphysical. Horoscopes mean about as much to me as this week’s Powerball numbers. If you want to take a punt on fate, then go with God. I’ll fight for your constitutional right to practise your beliefs but I’m yet to meet a yogi or preacher I’m swayed by. It’s not that I don’t care. I spend a lot of time pondering life’s big philosophical questions — who are we now and who should we be? — but I’m not sure the answers come from any one book or prophet.
Reincarnation, afterlife, ghosts and spirits – all seem as possible but improbable as intelligent life in space. We don’t know what happens when we go gentle into that good night, only what science tells us about energy never disappearing but instead transferring. Science doesn’t have all the answers either, of course, but the transferring thing is nice. I believe I’ve felt heaven on earth, and it was good food and wine with the person I love. I believe there are infinite variations of hell on earth, and most of us have lived through some of those, too.
Lately I’ve been wondering, though, if my inability to tune in to anything in particular is making it harder for me to shake the blues. The truth is, I’ve been having a bit of a tough time. My therapist says she’s got more “burnout” patients than ever before. Australian politicians have decided to “live with the virus” and we’re all acting like we’re in a post-Covid world — travelling, working, events — but tens of thousands are testing positive every week. You don’t need to be especially enlightened to see a lot of people are struggling. We’re trying to emulate our 2019 smiles and lifestyles, but we haven’t yet recovered. We’re not even sure what actually happened.
Every culture in the world has ancient traditions of humans attempting to alter their mental state: to escape, to get to a higher plane, to tap into something else. Peyote, alcohol, opiates, whatever. For me, it’s my work, which is my art, which is my life. When I’m reading and researching or drafting and editing, I lose sense of the present. I am transported out of the immediate and into some alternative place, either real or imagined. When the art is flowing, it is oblivion like no other.
The trouble is that at some point in the past six months, I forgot about the brakes. It’s funny to me that there are stores out there that will sell you a giant hunk of “calming power” rose quartz for $3,000. It’s less funny to have worked so much for so long that you’ve forgotten what your hobbies are. Last weekend I tried to do nothing for two days in a row (my partner says this is called a “week-end”) and had an anxiety attack on the second morning. The American writer Kurt Vonnegut said practising an art is a way “to make your soul grow”, but it doesn’t feel like that for me right now.
A lot has been written about burnout, but I was a sceptic. The cultural critic and journalist Anne Helen Petersen has written about millennials being the “burnout generation”, saying “the overarching thing is precarity”. You’re exhausted but you can’t afford to take a break. You feel like everything is going to slip away from you if you pause for even a weekend. Technology and social media make it worse, but removing them is neither an option nor a real solution. We worked from home on and off for two years during a global pandemic. The pandemic hasn’t stopped yet, but we’re back in the office. It makes sense that a lot of us are floundering.
An old Finnish friend of mine once remarked that there is something odd about Australians: that we have a rather static disposition — no high highs or low lows, not proper ones. She said it is because we don’t have real winters. During winter in Finland, it is dark for so long that people use lamps to treat seasonal affective disorder. Snow covers everything and the natural world goes dormant. We cannot understand the kaleidoscopic, cacophonous joy of new life in spring if we have not cried over the myriad old deaths in winter.
The English author Katherine May talks about this in “Wintering” (2020), a book about “the transformative power of rest and retreat” (I must be going through something in my life if I’m apparently now open to a book sold using the term “transformative power”). It’s mostly too self-helpy for me, but what resonated is the idea that we have fallow times. It’s unfortunate that we can’t be in spring forever, sure, but the consolation is that no winter is permanent either. Renewal isn’t possible without this cycle.
Last month, I lost a dear pet. I adopted two rescue guinea pigs about five years ago: a father and son, named Louis and Eddie, with distinct personalities and preferences. The tricolour brindle, Eddie, passed away over Christmas, then Louis went downhill six months later. Louis was a black and white shaggy thing with a big attitude. I took him to the vet on a Friday afternoon because he’d lost some weight. One hour and thousands of dollars later, I was standing outside in the rain, alone with an empty box.
He didn’t respond to treatment over the weekend. Then on Monday, at 8am, I was standing in line at airport security, preparing to travel to Melbourne for a day of meetings, when the vet called. They were kind enough to use the word “euthanasia” first, so I could continue with my cowardly euphemisms.
“I have to ask you some difficult questions now, I’m sorry. Would you like to come over and be with him for this?”
I started crying and couldn’t stop. “I’m at the airport. I’m going interstate for work.”
“Would you like us to wrap the body for you, so you can come and collect him?”
“We don’t have a garden. I don’t know where I would bury him.”
“We can organise a cremation. This is the final difficult question: would you like us to perform an autopsy? Some people feel it might give them answers when we’re not certain why a pet has passed away.”
You’re allowed to laugh at that last part. Who knew you could get an autopsy for a guinea pig? Missing the meetings wasn’t an option so I went to Melbourne and I did my job, and when I finally got home late that night, my partner held me as I sobbed. I had loved something, a small friend, and I had let him die alone.
If Louis had passed away at home, what would we have done? Put his tiny body in one of the apartment building’s wheelie bins? Risk getting arrested by walking 20 minutes to the nearest park and digging a hole? I felt so far from nature. The miracles of the modern world have allowed me to work more and further. I eat imported winter vegetables for dinner and imported summer fruits for dessert. I plug podcasts into my ears when I go walking in the botanic gardens. My productivity was at an all-time high and I was miserable.
My spring was a fake one. Some kind of artificial spring. A hothouse spring. I’d been so caught up in getting back to my pre-Covid life that I had forgotten that pre-Covid life was full of fallow times, too. You don’t have to be spiritual to know that happy doesn’t mean anything without sad. We mourn a lost life because we loved.
Louis’s cage sat empty for a week before I shored myself up enough to take it apart and find someone to give it to. When I get home from work, I still go to where it was to say hello. This is normal. When autumn comes the leaves turn brown before they shed. Nature gives us stages and several months to work through them. I’m trying to listen and take it slow. Apparently this type of healing can’t be optimised or hacked. Imagine my frustration.
One of the common complaints about May’s book is that “wintering” — taking downtime, allowing oneself a fallow period — is inherently privileged. A single mum working two jobs probably doesn’t have the luxury of dedicated time to “reinforce the soul”. As Petersen says, burnout is the feeling that “you’ve hit the wall exhaustion-wise, but then have to scale the wall and just keep going”.
These extremes are not burdens I carry. I have a manageable mortgage and no children. The pressure I’ve been feeling to work and work and work hasn’t been out of true financial necessity. It has come from an insecurity about my value in the world. The jam-packed schedules are shields against difficult adult questions — big philosophical questions I thought I was willing to sit with even if they brought discomfort.
Mine is not true burnout because it is within my power and means to slow myself down. The challenge is to define priorities in life that aren’t only about productivity. For a long time I put this type of thing in the woo-woo basket of spirituality and nonsense, but then a small death and an anxiety attack made me take a look at the person I was becoming. I’m not saying I’m going to buy a giant hunk of rose quartz. Maybe I just need to start with weekends. Wish me luck.
If you are experiencing burnout or depression, seek help from Lifeline (13 11 14) or Beyond Blue (1300 224 636).