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The Burnout Society

Mark Vernon

Byung-Chul Han
Stanford University Press, 80pp

We live in a dictatorship of positivity. 'Yes we can' is the dogma of the age not just the exhausting creed of politicians. You and I must be happy and succeed in our many projects. Business success means maximal production. Church success means ecclesial entrepreneurialism and measurable growth. We enjoy only amazing holidays, watch simply brilliant films, and - led on by our leaders - generally talk with an excited lexicon of possibility, blessing and superlatives. And it's making us ill.

This the conclusion of the Korean-German philosopher, Byung-Chul Han. His essay, The Burnout Society, has recently been published giving us his work in English for the first time. He describes how a lack of negativity in life leads to hyperactivity followed by burnout. Because no-one can say no - to the boss, to the mobile, to the inner child, to God - we become trapped in cycles of over-productivity, manic communication, and hyperexpectation. And, of course, no-one can live at this pitch. The upshot is an epidemic of collapse, depression and anxiety. 'The complaint of the depressive individual, Nothing is possible, is only possible in a society that believes, Nothing is impossible,' Han writes.

Worse, our very psyches are overwritten with this code. It's not actually our bosses or bishops who are exploiting us. We are self-exploiting, running the incessant command to achieve. Distractions and deadlines, mission plans and multitasking have become a way of life. But the paradox of positivity is that it wrecks. 'It is an illusion to believe that the more active one becomes, the freer one is.' Hyper-attention similarly empties. When everything must be exceptional, the good feels naked. We're left nervous, like a creature hunted on the savannah with nowhere to rest - and the threat is not out there, it's internalized.

A fascinating theme in the book is how such social and cultural factors shape our psyches and spiritual lives. Han argues that Freud's assumptions about the unconscious are now out of date. The father of psychoanalysis lived in what the French philosopher, Michel Foucault, was subsequently to label the 'disciplinary society'. In such a culture, individuals self-correct in the attempt to remain on the right side of moral assumptions - to be normal not abnormal, sane not insane, law-abiding not rulebreaking. We routinely monitor ourselves, as if we were living under constant surveillance. The psychoanalytic product is the superego, that inner voice or regulator which escalates the anxiety as rules and regulations are approached or breached. But now, as an achievement society, the imperative to inhibit yourself has given way to an imperative to produce yourself. 'Shouldn't' has been replaced by 'can'.

If the punishing superego of the disciplinary society has become less powerful, Han is not clear on the nature of the psychic structures of the achievement society. A first thought might be that ours is an addictive psyche shaped by the pleasure principle - and simultaneously overwhelmed by the narcissistic wounds that inevitably follow from being unable always to do, to thrive, to achieve, to flourish.

Another thought is that Freud's erstwhile disciple, Carl Jung, has something constructive to offer here. He argued that individuals today need not to perfect themselves but to complete themselves. His vision of the psyche is shaped by a longing to integrate from within its own resources, and conversely, of avoiding the mistakes and disasters that come from trying to replicate an ideal. 'Before we strive after perfection, we ought to be able to live the ordinary man without selfmutilation,' Jung wrote in a letter. 'If anybody should find himself after his humble completion still left with a sufficient amount of energy, then he may begin his career as a saint.'

Such cultural changes also have implications for how we conceive of God. In a disciplinary society, God tends to be viewed as an omnipotent moral being who punishes and condemns, or is pleased and blesses, when his disciples fulfil their duties and tasks. If those imperatives are carried out at cost to the individual, God smiles all the more broadly.

But now, in an achievement society, the dominant image of God will have shifted. The God-image is perhaps now an omnipresent loving being who bestows rewards and riches, happiness and ecstasy. Again, this is too much for mere mortals, and so contemporary theists suffer from guilt not because of what they are not doing but because of what they are not experiencing: the life of the joyful redeemed. This insight might help explain the spread of charismatic movements that tend to emphasize what God has achieved for humanity, and whose meetings are organized around replicating and sustaining the highs - making burnout, once more, almost inevitable.

An alternative view of God, Han argues, is the God of the Sabbath - the holy day on which we are invited not to achieve, not to produce, but to stop. It's a day not to. It's an interval in which uselessness and idleness is celebrated. We can be tired on the Sabbath, a tiredness that Han concludes is a blessing because yielding to it precipitates peace and calm.

Moreover, in a surprising discussion of Pentecost, Han argues that it was the disciples' exhaustion after the events of Good Friday and Easter that prepared them for the open-heartedness required to receive the Spirit. Tired, their defences and barriers collapsed. Exhausted, they had no energy left. Breathless, they could be inspired - breathed into. Pentecost as shattered. It offers a radical vision for a church which, today, often seems identified with the secular demand to achieve, to unthinkingly intone, 'yes we can'.