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Fleeing a burnout society: modern work & self-actualization

Back in the ’80s, when a new economic orthodoxy was pushing for market liberalization and offshore production, a South Korean twentysomething was experiencing a personal crisis. He questioned himself about what to do with his life and ultimately about the meaning of life itself.

A gifted student, he moved to a German university with strong departments of philosophy and theology, Freiburg im Breisgau. There, Edmund Husserl had taught phenomenology to Martin Heidegger, and the latter had become the professor of several promising young students, Hannah Arendt and Günther Anders among them.

South Korean-born Swiss-German philosopher and cultural theorist Byung-Chul Han

The turbulent relation between Husserl, Heidegger, and Arendt —due to Heidegger’s partial bow to the Third Reich, when he had become dean of the university— caused Husserl expulsion from academia. Arendt, who had been Heidegger’s lover, ultimately left for France, settling in the United States.

Arendt and Anders found the way to leave France, where they had settled with the arrival of the Third Reich, and later to the United States, but some relatives and friends from academia were not as lucky. Arendt tried to help Walter Benjamin join them in Marseille. Still, Benjamin would become stranded in Portbou, the Spanish side of the Catalan border between France and Spain, ultimately committing suicide.

A twentysomething in search of meaning

Such stories could have resonated in Frankfurt, Benjamin’s alma mater, and Freiburg im Briesgau in the ’80. The Berlin wall was still up, and the Iron Curtain seemed as calcified as the scar dividing South Korea from North Korea, but the young student, Byung-Chul Han, was determined to study philosophy, German literature, and catholic theology. On the horizon, he envisioned something even more ambitious, a doctoral degree in Martin Heidegger’s philosophy.

This personal commitment saved young Byung-Chul Han from the Abyss of seclusion and self-destructive nihilism. Now he is a professor at the Berlin University of the Arts and writes short, concise, accessible essays on philosophy, tackling the impact of fragmentation (of time, ideology, entertainment) in the digitally-dependent contemporary world.

In The Burnout Society, Byung-Chul Han argues that the lack of institutional constraints in the way we relate to each other, work, and consume entertainment has influenced the rise of a modern individual that exploits himself.

The perceived stakes are high, and one must perform in all aspects to keep up with what others seem to be achieving (judging their curated social feeds). But the more significant the effort, the more intense the multitasking, the never-ending stream of to-do lists, things to order, and content to go through, the bigger the exhaustion and detachment from a different, more meaningful attitude towards the world.

Alienation and midlife crisis in our times

Mental disorders and suicide in midlife have increased across the developed world, and the situation seems especially dramatic in American suburbs, where opioids consumption is rampant despite the public effort to tackle the phenomenon.

The malaise is multi-dimensional. Its spiritual side is also bigger than we have managed to explain. Phenomena such as suicide and mental trouble in midlife have something to do with an existential crisis and the struggle to find a personal, meaningful way to relate to others and the world.

Structural shifts in the last decades, such as the emergence of jobs and entertainment detached from the physical world, as well as the offshoring of manual labor and traditional trades, have further separated people from potentially meaningful vocations.

This existential angst is also related to the growing number of socially secluded young adults. Once again, men are overrepresented, most of them young, though some have entered mature age. In Japan, popular culture has given a name to the generational seclusion of young adults who give up what they consider a meaningless societal rat race to study and work to exhaustion: hikikomori.

“Hikikomori” is a Japanese term, but the phenomenon of social withdrawal among the young, usually involving an idealist personal projection in the Internet, is global

In China, a similar phenomenon arises as more and more urban young quit China’s Darwinian work culture to live “free of anxiety.” They call themselves those who are “lying flat,” an act of passive resistance that tries to escape from the trap of nihilism by seeking a vernacular version of Thoreauvian simple living.

When Lev Tolstoy was about to lay flat

Some of those “lying flat,” like young designer Li Chuang, quit bustling metropolis such as Beijing for the ancestral tranquility of monastery towns in Central China, among mountain peaks and traces of Taoism, an ancient philosophy related to the dharmic religions of the Indian subcontinent.

But this loss of faith in modernity and craving for more meaningful seclusion is not an exclusively contemporary phenomenon. Philosophers and authors have tried to study and express such Romantic reactions across history. Russian writer Lev Tolstoy, the literary giant of Russian and universal literature, had one thing or two to say about the matter.

As a contradictory, tormented young dvoryanin —a member of the Russian nobility— Lev Tolstoy shared most of the flaws shown in his characters, from the quarrels in streets of ill repute to the struggle to find life’s meaning.

He struggled with self-discipline and spent freely on frenzy nights like the one that opens War and Peace. In it, Pierre Bezukhov, the twentysomething illegitimate son and heir of a wealthy count about to die, volunteers for a foolish drinking game —going through a rum bottle while sitting on a window ledge.

If, in the opening of the celebrated epic, Pierre tries to compete in bravado with acquaintances such as Dolokhov, a cold and cynical young officer who lures people around him into gambling and dubious business schemes, young Tolstoy could have fallen for the same frivolities. Pierre volunteers to drink all the rum without falling just for the sake of the drink, ruling out a bet, the same way Tolstoy could have experienced it himself.

Tolstoy’s monster

Young Tolstoy admired the wrong people and cared about looks, easy ladies, and allure among young gentlemen spending their generous stipends on indulgencies.

Before becoming a writer, Tolstoy wasn’t a monster but a rather reliable fellow with the flaws of his era and privileged condition within a feudal society he wanted to help improve, was getting ready to fight an even bigger Leviathan, the monster of conformity, for he was to inherit Yasnaya Polyana, a 1,600 hectares (4,000 acres, the size of the Scilly Isles off Britain’s Cornish peninsula) estate 120 miles south of Moscow.

Yasnaya Polyana hosted about 350 “moujiks” (servants and peasants,) leaving in four hamlets across the property. It had belonged to another noble family until the eighteenth century when Prince Sergey Volkonskiy purchased it and then passed it to his son, general Nikolai Volkonskiy, the writer’s grandfather.

Little had changed in the estate or the condition and status of its dependable population when Tolstoy’s parents died. He was nine years old. The would-be writer grew as a teenager disenchanted with the blows of existence and fate; was God fair? Was there even one? If so, why did he allow such things to happen? Raised by an elderly aunt, her traditional approach to religion, custom, and class nurtured Tolstoy’s Schopenhauerian nihilism.

But young Tolstoy’s disenchantment was that of a man of his social condition in a conflictual era. By 1847, at age 19, he had given up his studies, began an erratic life he first wanted to escape from by volunteering as a junior officer in the Crimean War, where he confessed to having killed.

Pierre and Levin: two perfectible (yet human) alter egos

If 1847 was the year when Tolstoy had left regulated education, he had begun a quest for reliable “sources” of education of a life worth living. That year, the gentleman-farmer dropout (which reminds us of one of his legendary literary alter-egos, Konstantin Dmitrievich Levin, the country landowner co-protagonist in Anna Karenina who chooses a rustic, self-examined, Spartan existence over a residence in the city) young Tolstoy wrote the first entry to his diary. He will come back to it as a source for self-study, self-criticism, as well as one of improvement.

The diary will also become the steppingstone of “A Confession,” his personal and spiritual musings as a mature man, and the main source of the legendary intrigues of War and Peace (published in 1869) and Anna Karenina (1877).

Leo Tolstoy at mid age (Ivan Kramskoi, 1873); later on he would suffer an existential crisis

Just like Pierre Bezukhov, the young nobleman from War and Peace who struggles to find a purpose for his life more significant than the pleasure of indulgences, Tolstoy had to face early the consequences of worldly excesses. At 25, he had to sell part of the house to a neighbor to pay off debts, mainly gambling in the city. From A Confession, written in his fifties:

“I cannot recall those years without horror, loathing, and heart-rending pain. I killed men in war and challenged men to duels to kill them. I lost at cards, consumed the peasants’ labor, sentenced them to punishments, lived loosely, and deceived people. Lying, robbery, adultery of all kinds, drunkenness, violence, murder — there was no crime I did not commit. Despite that, people praised my conduct, and my contemporaries considered and consider me to be a comparatively moral man. So, I lived for ten years.”

The neighbor dismantled the central area of the house he had purchased to reassemble it later in his estate, while young Tolstoy had to leave in the two remaining wings of the wooden house.

Socially accepted mediocrity: the shadow of Anna Karenina’s husband

Things had changed when, at 34, he settled there with Sophia Behrs, later Tolstaya, his wife. It was 1862; there were many things to do in Yasaya Polyana, a microcosm of all of Russia’s strengths and flaws. That same year, Tolstoy would begin the draft of War and Peace, copy edited by Sophia and finished in 1869.

Their marriage, he would explain in his diary, wasn’t an easy nor a happy one, but it became fruitful in so many regards, work included. Tolstoy would not write much about one potential flaw: acknowledging the towering work of Sophia reading and copy editing by his side.

If Don Quixote’s biggest personality flaw might have been his inability to distinguish reality from illusion, he is also a lucid character who defends with his affected honorability a long-gone golden age of honor and chivalry, where aristocracy was immediate and real, with all the direct consequences of risk-taking action —death or glory, sometimes both things at once.

Young Tolstoy’s nightmare may have been the burden of a life detached from personal affirmation and creation, the anodyne but socially recognized existence of high functionaries that spend their boring, predictable, stable existences struggling to believe the worthiness of their professional and family lives.

One of such characters, used by middle-aged Tolstoy as a cautionary tale of what any hard-working, conventional, and conformist man could become, is Count Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin. Anna Karenina’s husband, a government official in Saint Petersburg 20 years his senior, was too serious and self-absorbed to care about what was happening around him, a shade of the man of action he could have been.

Jean Valjean, a model for Tolstoy

This fear of turning his existence into a celebration of a socially favored mediocrity led him to dedicate his work to exploring a recurrent, burdening question: what’s the meaning of life? How to avoid nihilism? How to make sense of it all when one is exposed to misery and contradictions, both personal and from others?

Middle-aged Tolstoy sought to write fiction about the human condition and confesses in his letters that, besides learning from work at the farm and self-examination, anybody in search of a life worth living had some readings to do. He was aware of Henry David Thoreau’s essays, described Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables as “enormous,” read the Greeks all his life, and consulted all sorts of technical and political treatises of his time to improve fields such as agronomy and education.

Tolstoy might have been as contradictory as Pierre and Levin. These characters show an Augustinian perspective of humankind: we all harbor good and bad things, we all can aim at doing right and wrong, or be judicious in recognizing what is worth defending, which duties are mandatory even when nobody is looking nor demanding their execution.

Portrait of Leo Tolstoy (Nikolai Ge, 1884)

He would never cease asking himself how he should live and how he could help others. Not even somebody able to write War and Peace and Anna Karenina is spared of the profound doubts of existence. At the end of the 1870s, once his two most important works were already published, Tolstoy experienced a breakdown and considered suicide. He was 50. In A Confession, he recalled:

“Several times, I asked myself, ‘Can it be that I have overlooked something, that there is something which I have failed to understand? Is it not possible that this state of despair is common to everyone?’ And I searched for an answer to my questions in every area of knowledge acquired by man. For a long time, I carried on my painstaking search; I did not search casually, out of mere curiosity, but painfully, persistently, day and night, like a dying man seeking salvation. I found nothing.”

Between Schopenhauer and mysticism

Tolstoy might have worked and written most of his fruitful life struggling to be true to himself, but that personal and spiritual quest was never easy because lucidity comes at a price (“A Confession”):

“Quite often, a man goes on for years imagining that the religious teaching that had been imparted to him since childhood is still intact, while all the time there is not a trace of it left in him.”

It was not easy even at the end, when, surrounded by an extensive family, a good fortune, and a colossal recognition both in Russia and abroad, Tolstoy kept working on a particular philosophy of life built not only upon Athens and Jerusalem —he was a professing orthodox Christian as if he would have pursued a life worthy of even the last staretz (ascetic teachers following the traces of the first evangelizers of the Slavonic world) could have related to.

This personal struggle explains why this self-considered Christian anarchist that had read Schopenhauer, the source critical of idealism that inspired the pre-existentialist work of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, had also been an avid reader of Buddhist texts and Taoist authors, found the energy and the meaning he sought as an aging, successful writer, intellectual, and landowner turned would-be-social-reformer: following the mental breakdown, the gentleman farmer and the man of letters put his spiritual and social beliefs into action.

Tolstoy’s aging seems to counter the popular opinion in which people are supposed to seek idealism while young and become more pragmatic —including giving up some old dreams— as work and family life pay their toll and nurture conformism, sometimes self-loathing and contradictory feelings, hence —the story goes— the midlife crisis.

Ages of man

Tolstoy seems to have followed the opposite direction, countering stereotypes based on the three ages of man by painters such as Titian, Giorgione, or Hans Baldung, among others: his frivolous, pragmatic life gave way to a more idealistic, ascetic one.

His everyday life became more austere and spiritual, close to those of orthodox staretz or early Franciscans, but also aware of the rhythms of nature and rustic living. On the public side, his intellectualism gave way to action: beginning in the late 1860s, he dressed like a moujik, plowed the fields, and helped repair homes alongside the laborers; he also promoted the emancipation of the commoners who had lived and worked for his estate as medieval serfs.

Later on, this transformation would inspire the evolution of two of his most prominent characters, Pierre (War and Peace) and Levin (Anna Karenina).

And, as if tracing the future contours of the characters Hermann Hesse would later on envision, mature Tolstoy moved closer to concepts in Eastern philosophy such as those of Dharma and Tao. In parallel, he gave up moderate drinking and smoking, becoming a vegetarian.

He was in his late fifties when his writings and literary correspondence showed a very personal interpretation of Christianity, following the tradition of the Russian ascetics. Each man had to interpret the gospels their way, free from the institutional filters of any church.

The fear of not living a life full of purpose appears again in The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886,) a disturbing novella featuring an anodyne high functionary who is supposed to live a fulfilling existence:

“Neither as cold and formal as his elder brother nor as wild as the younger but was a happy mean between them—an intelligent, polished, lively, and agreeable man.”

Confessions that can inspire us in hard times

Ivan Ilyich has a loving family, a socially esteemed occupation, and the opportunity of climbing the social ladder with a new position in a fresh destination. He is reality trapped in the “most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible” of existences, becoming a magistrate to dedicate to his work the time he thinks can spare him of tensions with his demanding wife.

Other than that, Ivan seems to advance into maturity with the achievement he longs for, that of respectability. Until one unimportant accident while he is hanging the curtains in his new home that will mysteriously erode his patience, then his health. An awkward fall at home will soon prostrate him in the bed and turn his condition into a terminal malady. Face to face to his mortality,

Portrait of Leo Tolstoy at 20 (1848). He later wrote about his troubled years: “I lost at cards, consumed the peasants’ labor, sentenced them to punishments, lived loosely, and deceived people. Lying, robbery, adultery of all kinds, drunkenness, violence, murder — there was no crime I did not commit. Despite that, people praised my conduct, and my contemporaries considered and consider me to be a comparatively moral man. So, I lived for ten years.”

He seems to have followed life’s instructions, but the reward has turned into the cruel punishment of Biblical fate. Why the pain, why a condition that takes over him. Ivan Ilyich realizes he has not lived a life worth celebrating, and he is not surrounded by attention and empathy, one that he is not capable of feeling or giving in return.

The novella shows the writer’s difficulties to elucidate the meaning of life as he grows old. The nihilism of Schopenhauer and the choral voices of the Bible intermingle and alternate within the writer. Self-doubt will manifest in different ways. Not long before forging Ivan Ilyich’s story, Tolstoy would write in A Confession that he was growing desperate on the projection of his death.

It’s no coincidence that Schopenhauer, a significant influence and at times a counterbalance to the Gospels he would read every night, had considered existence as a trajectory towards death that the individual tries to conceal with a rather sophisticated game of appearance and self-delusion.

Perspectivism: on the shoulders of giants

Schopenhauer himself had been an avid reader of Spanish Siglo de Oro philosopher Baltasar Gracián, a Jesuit priest, and Miguel de Cervantes. To Gracián, Cervantes, and the theatre of the Siglo de Oro, from Lope de Vega to Calderón de la Barca, life was but a subtle and macabre dance of subtleties, appearances, and double meanings, an ocean where one could be shipwrecked several times before finally sinking for good.

Tolstoy despised Schopenhauer’s decadence and tendency towards nihilism as much as Nietzsche did, but, like the latter, he could not but recognize his influence on him.

The perspectivism in Gracián, Nietzsche, and Tolstoy is also a reflection of individuals concerned about the direction of their respective societies during troubled times. Doubt, decadence, and intolerance around us can affect our choices and trajectory.

These authors were able to keep the angst of nihilism at bay by affirming their existence with personal, fruitful action.

Anybody can eventually learn their meaningful trade, traveling man’s ages on our projection towards a fruitful existence.