Walk it back

As you probably know if you’re reading this, I virtually never see movies. It’s basically a personality trait of mine at this point. And yet, 2 of my 3 most recent posts are now movie reviews. Go figure.

Not too long ago, I was tempted away from my anti-movie baseline to see The World Before Your Feet, a documentary about Matt Green, who’s walking every block of New York City. Other people have done this before, but Green’s doing it a bit more intensely—he’s including destinations like parks and cemeteries. In fact, it turns out the whole project ultimately takes on a Zeno’s paradox aspect; it’s not clear that Green’s gotten any closer to finishing his travels by the movie’s end.

I especially enjoyed this movie because I went on a couple of walks with Green once upon a time, when he used to lead groups on all sorts of adventures. Once we admired window decorations in Bay Ridge then trekked all the way down to Coney Island, including some waterfront adventures; the other time, we walked on the beach along Sheepshead Bay, saw some model planes and semi-abandoned hangars at Floyd Bennett Field, and crossed the Marine Parkway Bridge to the Rockaways. (Green intended to keep going onward to Breezy Point and back; my companion and I begged off, having already walked miles in the double digits.)

Watching the movie was a bittersweet experience. I loved seeing how Green had kept up with his mission all these years, and the movie has lots of great moments of humor and even drama. It acknowledges the quixotic nature of Green’s quest, but doesn’t make (too much) light of it. Parts of the movie touch upon the privileges Green has that facilitate his project (he crashes with friends and doesn’t have to spend much money; as a white man, he has not found himself in the sorts of threating situations that, say, Garnette Cadogan experiences walking while black. And there are times when Green’s interpersonal relationships strain under the pressure of his desire to walk; for example, a former girlfriend discusses how he never wanted to do things she was interested in, like going to the movies, preferring to walk instead. I can relate. As a counterpoint to these more serious issues, though Green doesn’t consider himself a people person, or his walk to be a social activity, there are some great moments of connection between him and the people he encounters on his way. Plus he does some great research as he goes; perhaps this is the project more than the walking itself.

At the same time, sitting in the movie theater with my sore back and knees was so frustrating. I envy Green’s ability to just take off and go wherever he wants; this feeling is a constant low-level ache behind everything I do these days, which the movie only exacerbated. (I appreciate that Green doesn’t take it for granted: he survived a serious crash as a cyclist and his family has had some other health scares; the movie suggests that his project arose in response.) Get out there and walk while you can, friends. I myself am going to leave you to take a spin around the block now.


Slow burn

So there are various reasons why I quit blogging and various reasons why I might start again, but let’s simplify and say: burnout.

I used to be the world’s most proactive person. I finished everything way ahead of schedule, sometimes to the annoyance of teachers and bosses. But after years of working and going to school at night and some constant low-level health woes, a funny thing happened. I learned to procrastinate. Need to send documentation of physical therapy to an insurance company? Maybe tomorrow. Teeny-tiny task that could be done no sooner than I could snap my fingers (if I could snap my fingers)? Eh, I’ll get to it eventually. Blog post that I could write but no one might read? Yeah, guess how that turned out.

It’s hard not to view this state of affairs as a personal failing, even though I can see how it arose out of years being busy and miserable and diligent. So it was fortuitous that I read Anne Helen Petersen’s article about millennial burnout, and I would encourage you to do the same. (Seriously; it’s way better and more comprehensive than anything I say here. I’ll wait.)

Did the article resonate with me? I can’t even count the ways. First of all, over the course of an evening I kept trying to read it and things intervened (chatting friends, knee stretches, a really urgent crossword puzzle). This inability to complete a simple task in itself is indicative of burnout. Petersen talks about the wave of articles criticizing millennials for putting off basic life tasks like mailing letters, registering to vote, doing the laundry—all while often managing larger endeavors like holding a job or going to school. Why are millennials so damn lazy?

Well, maybe that’s not the right word. Maybe our sense that we are constantly on call both professionally (got any outstanding work emails?) and personally (have you uploaded a glamorous shot to Instagram today or made a clever tweet?) is burning us out.

What is burnout exactly? Petersen discusses the common millennial belief that if we follow the right path—get good grades, work hard, get a good job—we will succeed. For a lot of structural reasons which she gets into and I will gloss over here, but which I’m sure you can imagine (student loans and financial crises are a couple), that isn’t really the case. We get caught up in a cycle of working ever harder and, rather than this increased productivity leading to more leisure time, we’re never able to take a break for fear of falling behind.

This cycle results in burnout, a psychological diagnosis Petersen explains was originally applied by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger to cases of “physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress.” Burnout isn’t just a brief state of exhaustion; it’s the culmination of pushing and pushing for ages, while never feeling you’ve completed anything sufficiently to take a break. Know the feeling?

I know I do. I can recognize it in what I’ve always glibly described as “learning to procrastinate.” I recognize it when I feel overwhelmed by the list of tickets and reservations in my inbox, even though they’re for fun things; when I spend weekend mornings “catching up on” the internet, as if that is an achievable goal; when I sign up to help out with a political group because I want to be involved, only to feel paralyzed by not being able to finish even a simple task while I wait for other volunteers to get back to me.

As Petersen puts it: “That’s one of the most ineffable and frustrating expressions of burnout: It takes things that should be enjoyable and flattens them into a list of tasks, intermingled with other obligations that should either be easily or dutifully completed. The end result is that everything, from wedding celebrations to registering to vote, becomes tinged with resentment and anxiety and avoidance. Maybe my inability to get the knives sharpened is less about being lazy and more about being too good, for too long, at being a millennial.”

I suspect that I, like Petersen, have been too good at being a millennial. Like her, I do not know how to solve burnout, or think that it’s solvable, really. But I appreciate knowing I’m not alone, and having a new way to think about the dread I feel when faced with my backlog of Times crosswords. I hope you will as well.

PS: I spent about a week trying to come up with a good inaugural topic. Once I realized I’d told about six people to read the burnout article, I decided I might have more to say about it. And I like the trick of attempting to counteract my creative burnout by writing about it. I hope something sparks.