Shopping Malls Are Awesome (A Post About Burnout)

So this happened: Obama was in town yesterday morning and it took me over an hour to get to my daughter’s preschool, which is five miles away from our apartment. For the first half of the drive, I fumed about the traffic. 2.5 miles an hour? Really? This is the best we can do? It didn’t have to be this way. Los Angeles is the city whose comprehensive streetcar system was forcibly dismantled by the oil industry. For the benefit of Angelenos, you might ask? Oh, goodness, no. For the oil industry’s benefit, my dears. For their benefit.

Santa monica traffic jam
Rush hour on the 10 (Image credit Wikipedia)

During the second half of the drive, I switched to fuming about the sprawl. Why was the only affordable preschool five miles away? I was mad at myself for having normalized something so absurd. When you combine SoCal sprawl with a wealthy minority able to pay $2000+ a month for fancy preschools–and let’s not forget a public university in the center of the richest part of town, forcing public employees like me to either spend way too much on rent or commute 3 hours a day–then you get bonkers situations that just become people’s realities. When I visited New Orleans a few years ago, a friend of a friend said she’d just turned down a job offer. “It was too far from home,” she said. “It was four miles.”

I choked on my sazerac.

When I finally got my kid to preschool yesterday, I was ready to cry. This was my telecommuting day, surreptitiously granted to me by my supervisor (the official request got lost somewhere in the bureaucracy and we gave up), but I was stranded five miles from home. I’d promised myself I wouldn’t buy another coffee this week; I’d make my own. I hate spending the money and I’m always forgetting my travel mug. But you know what? After living through Obamajam, I went ahead and got a latte. And a croissant.

I don’t want you all to think I’m looking for pity, because among LA horror stories, mine is incredibly mild. (Although I will throw this out there: if anyone knows of any librarian positions opening up in Portland or Olympia, please let me know.) Rather, I want to call your attention to the bit about the coffee. Before I worked 9 to 5, I made myself coffee every morning. Sure, I’d often write in coffeeshops, but the idea of buying my morning coffee was absurd. Making coffee is such an easy thing.

It’s such an easy thing when you’ve got the energy.

* * *

A couple of years ago, David Cain went back to working 40 hours a week after 9 months of traveling. Realizing he was spending way more money on stuff than he had before, he made this observation:

[T]he 8-hour workday is too profitable for big business, not because of the amount of work people get done in eight hours (the average office worker gets less than three hours of actual work done in 8 hours) but because it makes for such a purchase-happy public. Keeping free time scarce means people pay a lot more for convenience, gratification, and any other relief they can buy. It keeps them watching television, and its commercials. It keeps them unambitious outside of work.

We’ve been led into a culture that has been engineered to leave us tired, hungry for indulgence, willing to pay a lot for convenience and entertainment, and most importantly, vaguely dissatisfied with our lives so that we continue wanting things we don’t have. We buy so much because it always seems like something is still missing.

Western economies, particularly that of the United States, have been built in a very calculated manner on gratification, addiction, and unnecessary spending. We spend to cheer ourselves up, to reward ourselves, to celebrate, to fix problems, to elevate our status, and to alleviate boredom.

Of course, you’re here at a radical anti-Capitalist blog, so you know the history of the 8-hour day. Capitalism cares about Capitalism, not people. Still, I first read that article right after I’d finished library school and started the first full-time gig I’d ever had in my life, so seeing my exact situation so clearly articulated felt like the moment you look in a mirror after wiping away the steam.

And what’s hilarious is that the organization I work for isn’t for profit, at least in theory. Libraries don’t make money. But you’d better believe we’re expected to put our forty hours in each week. Why? Well, because, that’s why. I get work emails timestamped 9, 10, 11 o’clock at night. My colleagues and I have entire conversations about how tired we are.

For most of my life, I’ve hated shopping malls. The sterile environment, the false sense of public space, the asinine stores filled with mass-produced crap. Ugh. But a creepy thing happened after I had a child and started working full time. One day I needed a new pair of sunglasses. Another day, a birthday gift for my husband. Then a pair of flats for work. Each time I walked into the mall, I found…I enjoyed it.

I liked being there.

Partly it was because I didn’t have the kiddo with me and I felt free. But honestly? The atmosphere was soothing. There was something about the airiness, the pleasant temperature, that calmed me. And then, of course, there was the little endorphin high of buying a thing. Malls are a laughable substitute for the healing properties of nature, of course–but here, they’re a lot easier to get to than regional parks.

Because parenting in a nuclear family (another gift of Capitalism) and working full time with a commute drains the fuck out of you. Which is exactly what it’s designed to do. So all of your highfalutin ideals–I’m gonna clean my counters with vinegar and grow all my food in a container garden and ride my bike everywhere and use the flat bar skate rails to go to all the rallies and sit at my altar every night–start to crumble. Because they take effort you don’t have and they don’t seem to be making a difference anyway.

Again, I’m not trying to solicit pity (or, it should go without saying, advice). What I’m describing is the norm for those who have the remarkable good fortune of nabbing full-time jobs.

If you do a Google search for “burnout,” you’ll get tons of articles on how to recognize/prevent/deal with burnout at your job. But our economic system has zero incentive to keep you energized and interested in your work. Because if you’re like most Americans, there are few other jobs you can just skip off to, and you’ll spend more money trying to make yourself feel better. Burnout makes you apathetic. Ironically, cynicism can make you quite compliant.

* * *

After the Charleston massacre, I’ve been thinking about an incident I witnessed a few months ago involving some white radicals. These white radicals decided to host a group discussion about police brutality. I wasn’t there for the first half so maybe something really transformative and inspiring happened, but when I came in, the more radical radicals were yelling at the less radical radicals and everyone was loudly crying. I wondered: what did they think they were accomplishing? We librarians are really into assessment, and I found myself mildly curious about what a survey six months out would reveal. Had the more radical radicals won anyone over to the cause? Did they make anyone measurably less racist? Or did everyone settle right back in to whatever beliefs and habits they’d had before the discussion, except with a nice new layer of resentment?

As I sat there, numbly listening to the sobs and hiccups, I thought back to the feminist blog I’d once written for, whose main writer didn’t give a shit about women of color and spent a conspicuous amount of energy hating on mothers. (“How dare they ask for milk on airplanes! How dare they bring their kids to restaurants!” It was really noticeable.) I thought back to all the wars I’d witnessed in the feminist blogosphere, symptoms of a movement devouring itself from the inside out.

I remembered why I’d faded out of radicalism, even faded out of activism altogether for a time. It was so exhausting. You could pour an infinite amount of energy into activist work and never feel like you were making a difference. I knew way too many people who either began to fetishize anger, lashing out right and left, or just gave up and faded back into the mainstream. Started buying sweatshop clothes again. Let their subscriptions to radical magazines lapse.

* * *

Obviously not all radical circles are the same. I know there are perfectly healthy radical cells and movements out there, and I applaud them. This post is for those who have had less-than-inspiring experiences.

There are two cures for burnout. The first is obvious: don’t work so much. I’m glad self-care is emphasized in radicalism, but unfortunately, things are looking bleak for the rest of society. There is absolutely no reason why we need to work forty hours a week or more, but here we are.

The second cure isn’t as immediately apparent. The work you do has to have an outcome. Something measurable. Something meaningful. A thing that wasn’t there before that makes you feel good. Think about your Paganism: would you continue to give offerings to a deity or perform a spell for weeks or months or years if the practice never had any positive effects? Sure, you might turn your frustration into shame and become a religious fanatic, but more likely you would just stop doing it.

Again, not so applicable to paid work. But crucial for justice work.

And here’s where assessment gets really challenging: when you realize that the work you’re doing isn’t effective, you have to be willing to stop and switch to something else. Because throwing yourself into pointless work is nothing more than a slow spiritual death.

* * *

I really don’t want my daughter to grow up in a place like LA. My Reclaiming community and my coven are here, so it’d be really painful to leave, but I think it’d be worth it to get to a place with forests. A place where I could have a real garden. A place with less traffic and lower housing costs. A witch in a traffic jam is not a happy witch.

In the meantime, I go easy on myself for stumbling once in awhile. I buy the coffee. I linger at the mall. But these things are just anesthetics. All they can do is numb you.

Here’s to a future with healthy communities and vibrant landscapes: a future that we create by doing what works and letting go of what doesn’t.