On fetishising busyness and tiredness

As someone who identifies as disabled, the fetishising of busyness and, particularly, tiredness, deeply frustrates me. I live with a daily, incapacitating exhaustion most would find difficult to comprehend. I’ve been ill for so long, I don’t remember what it’s like to wake from sleep robust or revitalised. My throbbing headaches, aching muscles and painful sore throats – present for almost a decade – are unrelenting. Being forced to stand on long public transport trips resigns me to bed for a day or two. Some mornings, my body won’t let me cook breakfast. Why would anyone want to romanticise that?

Busyness has become a competition, a Victorian Cross or Legion of Merit for running ourselves into the ground. It speaks to our self-worth and dedication to our crafts. An overloaded lifestyle, rather than a quieter one, has become an aspirational status symbol. We venerate industry, even when it culminates in something lesser than the sum of its effort. When we tell people we’re busy it’s often the truth; but we also want people to know we’re busy and thus, by proxy, important. Humblebragging about busyness signals how much the competitive labour market values us. This also goes for tiredness.

This burgeoning cultural phenomenon was explored by a recent paper published in the Journal of Consumer Research, and by journalist Oliver Burkeman in his five-part BBC podcast, ‘Fetishising Busyness’. When we aspire to activity and exhaustion to the point of fetishisation, we damage certain communities and ourselves. Spreading yourself thin is – for many people – a choice, and not the burden we perceive it to be. It emanates from wanting everything to have gone our way.

Offhand exclamations about our active lifestyles and resulting fatigue are ubiquitous across social media, daubed like apathetic teenage boys graffitiing their neighbourhoods. When I see one, I can’t help but feel it devalues my own exhaustion. Exhaustion that is not achieved through hard work or civil contribution, but merely from being awake. It’s also a potent reminder of my own disability, the barriers my body continues to place around me. I plumb to the very depths of my limits every day, receiving animosity instead of esteem. But I believe that it’s the collective ramifications of worshipping busyness that’s far more damaging. Put simply: if we continue to fetishise busyness, we continue to discount those who don’t have the ability to be constantly active. The idea someone’s identity or value to society is fundamentally tied to how much they can fit into their week to me feels toxic, competitive and deeply prejudiced.

In the eyes of many, if you’re not spending twelve hours each day overworking yourself, you’re lazy. A dole bludger. Part of the country’s ‘pussification’. People living with disabilities – particularly those in Australia on the Disability Support Pension (DSP) – have been scapegoated by a number of Coalition governments over the last twenty years, and we continue to face partisanship from the able-bodied and policymakers. Apparently we’re not sufficiently grateful for the few scraps that do come our way, and we’re a burden on taxpayers. It’s easy to vilify a community ill-afforded opportunities to busy themselves or participate in society, particularly one with limited resources to fight back when attacked. But it feels especially oppressive if we consider the fact that Australia’s unemployment rate for people with disability is nearly twice that of able-bodied people, and that we’ve got some of the poorest labour market outcomes for people with disability in the 35-nation OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development).

The fetishisation of both busyness and tiredness is particularly rampant in creative industries. In such spaces, we can’t just be active or productive; we have to be busier than everyone else. We’ve internalised busyness into something resembling a criterion, where standing back or resting feels like a non-option. This lends itself to the perpetuation and romanticisation of the similarly frustrating starving-, tortured-artist archetypes. Celebrating the idea that flogging yourself to the point of ruin will garner respect from peers or augment your work in any way erases people with disabilities from creative industries, and has serious personal and social implications. Take my word for it: there’s little sexy about spending weeks at a time in hospital, or falling into frequent meditations on whether the world would be better off without you. Good art isn’t purely borne from places of darkness, and when our artists fall because they’ve waded too deeply into that myth, the creative community weakens.

Being busy and tired is fine, even healthy in some cases. There’s nothing immediately damaging about tweeting or Instagramming it, either. But it does become an issue when we’re implicit in feeding a culture of burnout, or of degrading the human value of communities relegated to the fringes of society, or of taking such a capitalist approach to life.

Of course – and I can’t reiterate this enough – not everyone who’s tired or busy chooses to fetishise it. Many exert themselves beyond sustainable human scale out of necessity, dithering between poverty and an impossible work-life balance. Others might be exhausted from the daily opposition of other systemic oppressions.

Deciding to pursue a busy, exhausting lifestyle is something we need to interrogate and/or appreciate with much greater frequency. I still find myself disposed to broadcasting my busyness and fatigue when my body allows me to tolerate any ramping up of my schedule, even though I know how damaging it can be – it’s that engrained in our culture. I need to do better – to question the need to broadcast this – and so do you.


Image: Racing / Yohann Legrand

Evan Young

Evan Young is a writer and multimedia journalist living in Melbourne. He sporadically tweets from @thebevaneffect.

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