The other day, I was a little extra tired after being out later than normal for my husband’s birthday the night before. I got home and started making dinner, and my husband walked into the kitchen and asked, “Weren’t we going to go to empanada night?” Our favorite bar was hosting an empanada food truck and we had been excited for it all week. I basically had a breakdown right there because I forgot about the empanadas, desperately wanted to go get them, but was so tired and had already started making food at home. I freaked out and felt a panic attack building, and I eventually said, “I’m so overwhelmed all the time, just thinking makes me overwhelmed. I’m exhausted.”
I just planned a wedding, and that process took so much out of me. I wasn’t expecting it to be as bad as it was. I had panic attacks and horrible bouts with my anxiety. I thought I’d be back to my normal self after the wedding was done, but I’m not. I’m burnt out. And this moment has made me realize that I’ve been burnt out for a long time, not just because of my wedding.
My anxiety and feelings of being overwhelmed, even when it appears that I’m not, have prevented me from doing so many things I expect of myself. It causes a kind of paralysis that then spirals into guilt and frustration, and it just gets more fun from there. Recently I’ve realized that my anxiety and existential struggles are, in ways, directly connected to our modern American culture of achievement, consumerism, and “disruption”. With the attention economy (social and traditional media) following us everywhere we go thanks to invasive technologies, this frantic culture has infected every aspect of our lives. I’m overdue for a refocusing of my life.
Luckily, I’ve happened upon four books that, when read together, validated what I was feeling and helped me start to build a plan for how to get out of this headspace. I realized that I needed to take a step back and refocus in a way that allows me to build meaningful awareness and take pointed actions in my life. These books are The Year of Less by Cait Flanders, Braiding Sweetgrass by Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer, Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino, and How To Do Nothing by Jenny Odell. I recommend these books to everyone.
In Jenny Odell’s stunning How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, she makes a strong case for moving away from this idea that we need to be constantly achieving, growing, progressing, producing, innovating, destroying just to rebuild something pointless. Instead, we should turn our attention elsewhere, back to our actual place in the world, back to nature, back to repairing what capitalist colonialism has destroyed, by employing a concept she describes as “manifest dismantling”. This is a process of repairing the invasive harm done to the Earth and our society in the name of progress by removing those structures (physical, mental, cultural), healing the wounds, and, instead of building something new, maintaining that freshly liberated space as it is. Let it return to its natural state with minimal interference from you (us). This does not mean abandonment, it means stewardship.
According to Odell, removing ourselves from the attention economy and invasive addictive technology for a time allows us to refocus our attention. Her book does an amazing job at illustrating how powerful our attention is, both for destruction and for building. Our attention is currently being stolen from us at a rate impossible for us to maintain (hence the constant overwhelmed state), and due to that, we no longer know how to focus together as a group on shared goals. She uses successful acts of activism from the past (specifically the Civil Rights Movement and the 1934 West Coast waterfront strike that turned into the pivotal and impressive San Francisco General Strike). These movements were successful at the time because of strong unity and focus maintained by hundreds of thousands of people. No one was distracted, and manipulation by the opposition was less effective. But now, with our culture of flash outrage, attention whiplash, and content collapse, we can’t focus long enough to even read a full article let alone sustain a movement. Odell writes,
A social body that can’t concentrate or communicate with itself is like a person who can’t think and act…There are many “systemic abuses” to be refused at the moment, but I propose that one great place to start is the abuse of our attention. That’s because attention undergirds every other kind of meaningful refusal: it allows us to reach Thoreau’s higher perspective, and forms the basis of a disciplined collective attention that we see in successful strikes and boycotts whose laser-like focus withstood all the attempts to disassemble them”
The memoir The Year of Less: How I Stopped Shopping, Gave Away My Belongings, and Discovered Life is Worth More Than Anything You Can Buy in a Store chronicles Cait Flanders’ year journey of not buying anything that wasn’t 100% necessary to her survival. She had already cut out a lot from her life–drinking, extra crap, shitty people–and now she wanted to consume less. This is so appealing to me. I was raised in a family that was particularly aware of waste, and we did a lot to cut down on it. We were a family that spent a lot of time outside with nature, and I think we had a deeper connection with it. As I’ve grown up, I’ve found myself consuming a lot more and losing touch with what I did as a kid. I’ve been feeling like maybe a year of less would be refreshing for me too. I hate generating as much garbage as I do, and I’m honestly shocked by all the shit I waste my money on. When my small apartment is cluttered by the useless crap I buy, I definitely feel my anxiety bubble up.
This thought connects to Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. The entire book is amazing, but in the second half she discusses the indigenous lore of the Wendigo, a cautionary tale against excess consumption. The Wendigo has a ravenous hunger, consuming everything in its path including humans. It is not thoughtful or respectful or generous. It is a monster. Kimmerer compares this story with our current capitalist society. The concept of consumption has become so critical to Americans that our self-worth is tied up in it. Having the biggest house, nicest cars, most food, most stylish clothes. We gobble it up, and yet most of it becomes waste and toxic trash anyway. It rots the Earth and our souls.
North American indigenous tribes practiced giving economies between each other and the land, where nothing belonged to you but also everything belonged to you. Ownership was fluid and generous. People took only when offered and with the utmost respect. In return, people acted as stewards of the Earth. We find ourselves so far from that now.
This ties back to Odell’s thoughts on community and the general concept of bioregionalism. Odell spends a lot of time in her book talking about her local community, both her human neighbors and her animal and plant neighbors. She spends a lot of time observing them, thinking about their lives, putting herself in their shoes. It increases her empathy and understanding and allows her to live a richer life. She becomes a steward of her community, which requires a lot of undivided attention and focus.
There’s that concept of stewardship and maintenance again. As a librarian, I think a lot about the stewardship of information and knowledge. I find myself wanting to also be a steward of the environment, like Kimmerer, Odell, and even Flanders have become. I want to be a steward of my own life. I really don’t need to be optimizing myself every second, finding the angle to every activity, scheming to gain more visibility or be more productive.
I know this sounds dumb, but that’s a huge mind shift for me. As a type-A, action oriented, anxiety riddled human, I have almost always been built on the concept of my achievements. Sometimes I feel like if I’m not achieving, I’m not existing. That trash thought has lead my down the road of so many failed and pointless projects and efforts. They were pointless because they were initiated not out of passion or interest, but out of a desire to look like I was of value. To be fair, I have achieved a lot of good things in my life, and I have the same impulse to thank for that.
Kimmerer’s book came out in 2013, and of much of what she includes in it are reflections on moments in her past, including the beginning of the Iraq War. Her despair over the horrific unfolding of that conflict brought me right back to how it felt for me as a preteen and teenager (and young adult…long war). It was scary and hopeless. It made me feel like nothing I could do would ever help fix things, but it also sprung a now familiar feeling inside me. I feel it a lot now. It almost feels like excitement or nervousness, but it’s also rage, motivation, and frustration. It’s a fighting instinct, snuffed out before it can germinate into meaningful action. I think a lot of people recognize this feeling today. We’re not sure how to use it productively or even where to turn the fight or how. Part of this is due to my (our) fractured attention.
Jia Tolentino’s debut essay collection, Trick Mirror, addresses this paralysis head on along with all the other cultural and political elements that have formed this world Millennials were brought up in and now contribute to. Her discussions about the fruitless performative nature of folks simply having an opinion on social media and feeling like that was all that was required of them really hit home for me. Her discussions of the capitalistic nature of mainstream feminism put words to the gross feeling I would get when I saw Nasty Woman t-shirts and Men’s Tears mugs. Isn’t that money better spent elsewhere? Like donated to a local women’s shelter?
Time and time again throughout her collection, Tolentino talks about the ways in which women are robbed of their money and their time. This happens with non-women too, especially today, but it is arguably worse for women. Again, our attention is fractured, stolen by capitalism’s crafty marketing and the barrage of stimuli coming at us from all angels. We only have the capacity for shallow, short, showy actions. And that Wendigo rises up and our money is stolen as well, money we would be saving and applying in a more meaningful way. It is a tricky and fascinating form of suppression.
One of my favorite essay’s in Tolentino’s new collection goes through all the scams we’ve been subjected to in our (Millennials) more formative years. She touches on the housing crisis, the student debt crisis, social media, “innovative” technology, and the concept of “disrupting” industries. The manipulation (and the distraction) is rampant, and I’m ready to resist it by employing Odell’s concept of doing nothing…aka not engaging in it. I can only imagine what I could do with that extra time and money.
I hear Odell and Dr. Kimmerer loud and clear. I need to detach. I need to be more selective about where my attention goes. And maybe I should start with putting more of it into my own community and bioregion. Like many cities, my neighborhood is suffering from unsustainable gentrification, and Pittsburgh is facing some harsh environmental truths (lead in our water, horrific air quality, flooding, sink holes, and landslides caused by over development). I already volunteer with groups that rescue extra food, pick up trash, and fight for affordable and equitable housing in our neighborhood. I’m happy I’m doing these things, but I’m not seeing much of a change. It’s discouraging…something Odell warns about:
If you become interested in the health of the place where you are, whether that’s cultural or biological or both, I have a warning for you: you will see more destruction than progress.”
It’s hard to witness, but it makes your (my) contribution that much more important. It reminds me again of something Dr. Kimmerer wrote. After discussing at length the horrific conditions of Onondaga Lake in upstate New York, near where she lives and where I grew up, she says:
I choose joy over despair, not because I have my head in the sand but because joy is what the Earth gives me daily, and I must return the gift.”
After reading Tolentino’s scathing critique of the culture(s) that have made monsters of us and our experiences, and after reading Dr. Kimmerer’s beautiful pleas for our renewed devotion to the Earth and nature and returning to a gift economy, and after being inspired by Flanders’ year of actively saying no to the easy way of living dictated by cultural, social, and capitalistic pressures, and after being energized by Odell’s brilliant examination of how our attention and action should be employed intentionally, I have decided to make major changes to my life and find ways big and small to engage in manifest dismantling.
These changes might look small, but they will feel massive and be very hard. And they will be personal to me, so I’m not writing them down here (although I will say, we all need to break up with Amazon right now). I’m happy to talk one-on-one about all of this, if you’re interested. But I also beg you to read these books. At the very least read Odell’s and Dr. Kimmerer’s, but all four are worth your true, undistracted attention.