At the turn and beginning of the 20th century, life was changing rapidly for Americans. People were moving from the farm to the city and taking jobs in the new industrial economy. Consumerism as we know it today really began to take root in society. Where most people had previously made the things they needed to live, now mail-order catalogs made thousands of products available to anyone in any part of the nation. New laws were shortening the work day and work week, and people finally had some leisure time. Amusement parks like Coney Island drew huge crowds, as people poured into the park to forget about their troubles.
New technology was being developed every day, and life was moving at a faster pace than ever before. It wasn’t an easy transition for everyone. People believed that all this new hubbub was making them ill, leaving them with headaches, fatigue, depression, insomnia, weakness and a whole host of other symptoms. George Miller Beard was the first to diagnose these symptoms as “neurasthenia,” an ailment he believed to be caused by modern civilization’s taxing effect on the nervous system.
Even those who didn’t feel they were suffering from neurasthenia’s physical symptoms felt plagued by a sense of “unreality.” They felt shiftlessness, anxious, and restlessness. On the farm their lives had been guided by the changing seasons, they ate what they grew, and scratched out a life from the land. Now they lived in a tenement apartment, used indoor plumbing and electricity, and ate canned food. Cars were replacing wagons and changing the way life was lived. Magazines, consumer goods, and movies had opened up an entirely new world of horizons and possibilities. It seemed as if life outside one’s door was pulsating and vibrant, yet always frustratingly out of reach. Life felt flimsy and insubstantial compared to what seemed possible. Popular lecturers, authors, and quack doctors promised to rectify this problem and imparted advice about how to restore and find greater vim, vigor, and vitality. And yet the more people looked for it, the more elusive it seemed.
While the cause of neurasthenia was never agreed upon and it’s no longer considered officially recognized as psycho-physical condition, the feelings associated with it are quite real and seem to be experiencing a resurgence these days. Men have become stricken with what I’ve decided to call “modern neurasthenia.” Do you have it? Well pull up a chair and we’ll see if we can’t get you diagnosed.
Do you feel lost, restless, or shiftless?
Do you feel like there’s this great life you should be living but you just don’t know how to make it happen?
Do find yourself wishing that life would finally start for you?
Do you feel anxious about your life, sure there’s something else you’re supposed to be doing but you don’t have any idea what it is?
Do you feel like you’re life is generally going great and you’re doing the kind of things that you want to do, but you just have this sinking feeling that maybe you’re missing out on something?
Neurasthenia is back for the same reason it plagued our forbearers; our expectations have not kept pace with changing technology and culture. Technology has leapfrogged ahead in the past couple of decades with the internet, cell phones, Twitter, Facebook, and Blackberries putting us in instant touch with anyone in the world. With Google maps we can virtually zoom anywhere on earth and a wealth of information is right at our fingertips.
Our lives are also saturated with media. We’ve been exposed to thousands of commercials, movies, and televisions shows. How many images have we absorbed of SUV’s powering to the edge of a cliff, awesome rooftop parties in LA, sweet Manhattan apartments miraculously rented by struggling 20-somethings, vacations on private islands, legendary road trips and so on. The images we consume are full of moments showcasing life at its most vital and extraordinary.
And so our minds are filled with the vast possibilities the world has to offer, and technology makes us feel that all these possibilities are just within our reach. But the realities of our lives really haven’t changed much. Many aspects of our lives have sped up and become easier, but lots of things haven’t. We can instantly chat with our friend in Argentina, but we’re no closer to instantly teleporting there. Tons of information is available on the web but it still takes just as long as it ever did to read and absorb it. We still need to get jobs and pay rent and work at our relationships.
It is this gap, the gap between our expectations about the world and how we really experience it that causes our modern “neurasthenia.” New media and technology has seemingly brought the whole world just within our reach. But we can never seem to grasp it. We want to magically take it all in and we can’t. And so we feel depressed and anxious. We are sure that unlike us, others have found a way to lay hold of all the good stuff out there. We have this feeling that somewhere beyond our life, real life is taking place. It feels as if they are so many possibilities and choices out there, so many that we’re absolutely overwhelmed by them. We don’t know where to start, where to dive in. We’re thus paralyzed, and don’t do anything. And then we feel shiftless and restless because we feel bad that we’re not doing stuff. Because there’s so much we should be experiencing! But then we feel overwhelmed again, and then, well, you get the idea.
Neurasthenia used to be cured with quack elixirs and electrotherapy. But there’s really no need to zap your junk to feel better. If our modern feelings of restlessness and shiftlessness is caused by the disconnect between our expectations and reality, then the cure lies in closing that gap. Instead of being overwhelmed by the seemingly endless possibilities in life, you must hone in on those things you truly want to do and can do.
Figure out what you can do. A lot of men were raised by parents who did a bit too much coddling. They praised their kids for everything and anything. They told them that they could do anything in the world they wanted to. These parents were concerned about their children’s self-esteem, but this coddling often withered their kid’s ability to find a place in the world by robbing them of the chance to hone in on their true talents and abilities. Convinced that their potential is infinite, many men today cannot pick a major or a profession and feel lost, ever on the search for what they were made to do.
Every man must have lofty aims and ambitions. But he must temper his expectations with a dose of reality. Not all of us are going to be rich and famous. We need to honestly assess what we’re really capable of:
“I have said that a high ideal is essential to a completely successful life. But in the realization of our aim it is quite necessary to form an ideal commensurate with our abilities. Many a man has failed in his life-work because his notions of what he ought to do were marvelously beyond his power of execution. Such a man forms so high a conception of what he would like to accomplish that he has no heart to attempt anything in earnest. . . This intense burning desire on the part of common people to become millionaires, or merchant princes, or railroad kings, or something beyond their powers and opportunities has filled our American communities with hundreds of restless, discontented, useless men.
One of the most valuable lessons for the young to learn is that it takes a great man to accomplish a great undertaking, and that both are necessarily few in one generation. If this lesson were learned and heeded half the heartache of our mature years might be avoided. Effort, and high resolve, and noble purpose are excellent qualities of character; but they can never enable a man to lift himself by the boot-straps nor accomplish the unattainable. It is at once the weakness and greatness of some to conceive what they attempt to do of so high a degree of excellence that no human power can reach it. The natural effect of this is a restless desire to accomplish something far beyond what is ordinarily attained even by surpassing talent. When such a desire has taken possession of the heart, the usual achievements of men seem poor indeed. With their broad views and far-sighted stretch of thought, it seems trivial to come down to the common affairs of every-day life. It is to them a small thing to do good and get good in the plain old common-sense way. J. Clinton Ransom, The Successful Man, 1886
While we’re big believers in the idea of the self-made man, if you don’t have the talent, you’ll never bootstrap your way to being LeBron James. Stop drowning in the sea of infinite possibilities; take an honest assessment of what you’re capable of, figure out a realistic goal to put your abilities to use, and start working for that goal.
Remember, every man should want his life to be extraordinary. But no one’s life is extraordinary in every respect. Figure what areas of your life you want to be extraordinary in. If it’s clear you’re never going to be a world famous author or actor, then be an extraordinary friend, husband, and father.
Figure out what you want to do. We often feel restless because there seems like there are so many amazing opportunities out there in the world. We flip through magazines and see people scuba diving in the Caribbean, men camping in Yellowstone, and guys partying in New York City. We turn on the TV and see shows where guys are living it up in cool cities, dating hot ladies, and working at a cool job. We’re like a hungry kid window shopping at a candy store. Everything looks so darn enticing but out of reach. And so we feel anxious. We don’t have a net big enough to capture all of these cool possibilities.
We’re drowning in these possibilities, and we need to turn the faucet down. The truth is that we don’t actually want all of those choices. We have to separate what we think we should want to do from we actually want do. You might have been told that you should study abroad, you should backpack through Europe, you should live in a loft in some big city, you should, blah blah blah. These “shoulds” lodge in our subconscious and make us feel anxious; if we don’t do these things we worry that we’re missing out on something. But this anxiousness often prevents from doing anything at all. Afraid we can’t do everything, we do nothing.
But you have to evaluate which things you really want do and own that choice instead of feeling ashamed of it. If you’re a homebody who hates traveling, stop feeling bad about that. If you want to become a carpenter instead going to college, go for it. If you want to hike the Appalachian trail, do it. If you don’t, stop thinking about it and move on. If you hate the big city and love living in the burbs, embrace that. And vice versa. Our anxiousness comes from standing in the middle of a decision. We know we don’t really want to do something but we feel bad letting it go. We’re afraid it says something we don’t like about our identity. But you have to embrace your likes and dislikes or you will forever drown in choices.
Take small steps. Sometimes I actually don’t like browsing a bookstore because there are so many books, and I can get to feeling overwhelmed by it. All of these books to read! I’ll never be able to read them all! It almost makes me not want to start. I just have to tell myself to pick one that looks interesting and simply start there. As it is in the bookstore, so it is in life. Often we feel restless and unhappy because there seems like there are so many things out there that we want to take hold of. We want to have adventures, and get a dream job and meet our dream girl; we want to learn a craft, read 100 books, and learn how to dress well. We want to live life to fullest! But we put so much pressure on attaining this ideal that we end up being overwhelmed and paralyzed into inaction. Once you understand what can do and what you want do, you can start taking steps toward those things. You have to just choose one thing at a time to tackle. Making small, steady victories will cure your restlessness. Your mind simply wants to feel as if you are moving forward. So make that first step.
At the end of the day, you have to accept that “real life” isn’t something somewhere out there happening to other people, it’s what you’re living right now. This is your life. Start living it.
Listen to our podcast on the cultural history of exhaustion: