On Tiredness

(Originally published in Orion Magazine Nov’20)

Andrew O' Hagan claims that to tell someone you are tired is probably that least interesting thing you could say about yourself. He may have a point, though it certainly seems to be quite the fashionable thing to say these days. It is a term favoured by those of us unable to articulate either to themselves or to others whatever mental malaise they are suffering. A cocktail of ennui, self-pity and despondency shaken, stirred and served with a touch of good-old-fashioned melancholy. Why do we all drink it then?

You’d think they would be running triple shifts at the docks or around amazon delivery warehouses but they’re mostly junior something analysts at sell-up start-ups or marketing plastic plants to people who follow urban outfitters on Instagram. They go on holidays, drink matcha lattes and their meals are comprised of Korean-grilled Uber Eats delivery men. So where does this everlasting exhaustion come from? Who’s dropping Xanax into elderflower gin and tonics? The real problem though is that its not just this underworked and overprivileged clump - it’s everyone, its hungry students who forget to cook breakfast, its the taxi drivers by the train station, the pub landlord, the hotel receptionist, the latte-art barista who’s macchiato wears off, the cleaner and the chef - everyone is ‘just tired’. But tired of what exactly?

One thing is clear, the tiredness epidemic has reached full on cultural malaise. So much so that it’s taken for granted like 4G internet or 5 quid pints. You’ve begun to just assume that people are tired or at the very least that they will mention being tired. For the oldest generation (not you boomer - before you) tiredness was a sin or something you earned. Our wartime grandfathers and mothers were instilled with a sense that you could only be tired when it was your due by which of course they mostly meant when you were dead and even then often you were to be proud the fact - dulce et decorum and all.

On the other hand, the nostalgia for the keep-calm-carry-on spirit from those born in its proseprous aftermath is astounding. As our nuveaux prophet Francis Fukuyama points in his epithet we are all desire and reason with no higher calling, for some the problem with modernity is not that it is too hard, but that it is too easy. They are left without devotion nor sacrifice. They might have parents who spent themselves in service and calling to the larger cause and are somehow not quite alive next to them. Some may reason that this may be behind the very modern notion of the appeal of the politics of dissent to the most propserous among us.

Regardless its all very tiring isn't it?

This generational excuse though does not account for the overwehleming tiredness of the young. Surely this continuous tiredness is not merely the rallying cry of a mollycoddled populace. Indeed, in my experience it seems that when you ask why people are tired they either give you some half-hearted response about that work thing and my boyfriend is shagging that guy now (how your ex having sex with someone else can make YOU tired is beyond me). However it is the uncertainty in ‘tiredness’ causation that worries me most of all.

One most clear answer is that all of our dead time, on the bus, in the waiting room or in a queue is now taken up by device time. Our in-between moments are gone and these are not only restorative moments but moments that lend to us the sense of the passage of time. The feeling of the acceleration of time in our digitised age can be partially attributed to this, the loss of in-between moments. Those very moments of nothingness, often moments of boredom and no longer moments of presence. Tiring indeed.

There is perhaps, a sense in which tiredness has replaced boredom then. As Russell admonished “A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation ... unduly divorced from the slow processes of nature ..in whom every vital impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase". Much has been said about the value of boredom and our inability to bear it, however it would seem to me that we are now disposessed of even the opportunity to bear it. Ursula Le Guin muses that 'In boredom we are completely time and completely self — inner emptiness". No longer able to experience this, we in the age of distraction are unable to attein the surfeit of the self - to truly be with ourselves perhaps even to the point of derision. It is in this sense that, unable to exhaust ourselves in contemplation we are exhausted.

Really though, we should differntiate this kind of boredom from another. Schopenhaer spoke of this kind - the boredom resultant in the satisfaction of finite desires. To the condition of being a 'compound of needs, which are difficult to satisfy… If they are satisfied, all you are granted is a state of painlessness, in which one can only give himself up to boredom.' Then there is the boredom from tasks that are not finite and bound to hedonic treadmills or rather Zumba classes. The boredom that rises from a kind of inquiry, spiritual, emotional, relational or whatever kind - it is the boredom that arises from the kind of searching that seeks not to find. This is the boredom whose loss we feel most strongly. The boredom that we need to reel us back from the ever-complusive business of doing. Perhaps if we took some of that back then we wouldn’t be so tired after all.

Yet a final sense is hidden in the use of 'tired' the sense that it is masking something deeper. That the difficult realities we are expressing are not individual but cultural. That what is tired is not so much ourselves but in the air, it is contagious. It is the chief symptom of the overmanufacturing of needs in the society of propserity - one of screen-induced ineadequacies and capital suffused inferiority. The late cultural theorist Mark Fisher often observed that the ruling ontology denies the social causation of mental maladies. That the way in which we currently understand our private afflicitions is to assign them private causes and of course private solutions marketed to doctors, prescribed in illegible handwriting and handed to us in pills. In doing so we deny the possbility that our personal probles are symptoms of systemic problems, that instead we treat mental health like something that just happens - like the weather or the smell of the baklerloo line. But perhaps our individual pain is due to a greater sickness, one that has its roots not in ourselves but in each other and in the hegemonies that rule our everyday. Perhaps our'tiredness' is the only way we can really express this. Perhaps then, 'tiredness' really is in the air.

Whatever it may be: culturally suffused, digitally perturbed, generationally inclined or boredom repudiated one thing is bloody certain; that pub may not be a bad idea after all. After all, amidst all of this, I may just be, not too much but maybe just little bit. Tired.

Oct 04 2020