Earnest Burnout

A very dear friend went through a long, difficult year of medical problems, and I accompanied her for many of her appointments, some of which would last much of the day.

Because she is truly dear and an amazing person, we would be talking and laughing as she underwent treatment. She has a gift for focusing on the positive.

One day, we were conversing about giving many fewer f_ _ ks in our lives. We giggled as we talked about this, with my friend saying we should start our own podcast called “Giving Fewer F_ _ ks.”

Perhaps, given our setting, the nurse’s aide that day heard our conversation (in spite of the laughter) as giving up, as negative thinking, and he earnestly reminded us that it was important to care about some things.

He’s right, of course, but he didn’t know us well enough to realize that my friend and I both suffer from extreme earnestness, so giving fewer f_ _ ks was exactly right for us.

I suppose it’s no coincidence that I’m a big fan of Victorian literature — a period so characterized by its earnestness that Oscar Wilde wrote a play (The Importance of Being Earnest) making fun of the whole notion.

Even more telling, my favorite author of the period is Charles Dickens who famously addresses earnestness in what is considered the most autobiographical of his novels, David Copperfield. The titular character explains, “whatever I have tried to do in life, I have tried with all my heart to do well; that whatever I have devoted myself to, I have devoted myself to completely; that in great aims and in small, I have always been thoroughly in earnest. I have never believed it possible that any natural or improved ability can claim immunity from the companionship of the steady, plain, hard-working qualities, and hope to gain its end. . . .there is no substitute for thorough-going, ardent, and sincere earnestness. Never to put one hand to anything on which I could throw my whole self; and never to affect depreciation of my work, whatever it was, I find, now, to have been my golden rule.”

I suppose my attraction to Dickens comes from this “golden rule” being part of my ethos as well. I rarely have done things by halves. I own, for example, a bright yellow tank top inscribed with the pink lettering “only half crazy 13.1,” yet I’m registered for marathon number ten — full crazy times ten.

Of course, each of those marathons leaves me sore, exhausted, and my immune system weakened. It is an earnest endeavor that depletes me.

It’s exactly this earnestness that Jonathan Malesic argues is the source of burnout in The End of Burnout: Why Work Drains Us and How to Build Better Lives. Malesic writes about the emotional labor of work, the view of work as a kind of calling rather than a means to earn wages, and the gap between expectations and reality as the sources of burnout.

In other words, it’s about giving too many f_ _ ks.

As a professor, especially teaching during Covid, I wouldn’t say I suffered from burnout, but my toes got a little hot as I started to cross the line over into burn.

Working with people, as Malesic argues, always will mean more emotional labor, but as my students struggled with the global pandemic on top of all of the other stressors this generation faces, I found myself as worn out at the end of some days as if I’d run two marathons.

Caring deeply is a good thing. I do care deeply about my work and my students, but caring too deeply means depletion.

What does giving fewer f_ _ ks look like though? What would our podcast talk about?

For me, it’s understanding boundaries and letting go of the egocentric idea that I am SO important and actually capable of rescuing the world and/or my students. I must avoid the kind of earnestness that Wilde made fun of, a sort of martyrdom that inflates my self importance and does no one any good. I must understand and accept my limitations.

There must be a sense of commitment to doing what I can with the knowledge of what I cannot.

I sat with my friend during her long days of treatment, letting her know that she was important and loved and that I gave every f_ _ k imaginable. However, I couldn’t cure her, no matter how many f_ _ks I gave. I’m the wrong kind of doctor for that. I knew my limits. (She is doing well!!!)

Many philosophies and religions have argued for moderation whether called the Middle Way or the Golden Mean.

Whichever term you prefer, it’s about giving just right amount of f_ _ks.

We figure that out by setting priorities and creating appropriate boundaries.

I’m still working on that for myself — but keeping it light — or it kind of defeats the purpose.

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Kathryn Duncan

Kathryn Duncan

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Kathryn Duncan is an English professor and author of the book Jane Austen and the Buddha: Teachers of Enlightenment.