The other day I got an email from a friend. It began: "Am suffocating and overwhelmed. Impossible to list everything that's going on. It's all work related. By next week should be out of the darkest of woods."
My 11-year-old son exclaimed the other day that he felt overwhelmed. I think what he meant was that the demands of school and home life, compounded by baseball-practice and karate class, are just too much.
And then I got a letter from my father: "Every time I read a paper or listen to the news I am overwhelmed by the realization that nothing, but nothing works anymore! Politics, business, education, transportation, science, sports, advertising, you name it, it is broken and no one knows how to fix it."
Are you overwhelmed? I have been putting this question to people lately and I always get the same reply: Yes.
What's going on? Is life overwhelming us more now than ever before? Have we grown less flexible? Or the world more difficult? Is this a particular malaise of our times? It sure looks like it.
One culprit may be The New Perfectionism.
Somehow, somewhere along the line, we got the idea that each of us is responsible for perfecting every aspect of our lives. Nothing may be taken for granted: not our likes, lusts, habits or inclinations. These, after all, are potentially bad, dangerous, unhealthy. We may celebrate nature and the natural, but not when it comes to ourselves. We seek to cultivate ourselves.
Some examples: Are you old enough to remember when coffee came in a can and bread came in sealed packages and you simply bought what was for sale at the local grocery? You were neither afraid of what the food industry was serving up, nor were you convinced the your food selections — locally grown, organic, grass-fed, free-range, pesticide-free, non-GMO, unprocessed — were akin somehow to a religious credo!
Can we cleanse our sins at the farmer's market? Many of us try, and at the cost not only of great financial outlay, but of our energy. Lots of choices. And so much seems to be at stake.
What about your marriage? Are you working hard to make sure it is the best, most intimate, most sharing, most exciting, most loving marriage it can be?
And when it comes to kids, forget about it. We don't have kids anymore. We parent. That is, we work hard to produce perfect children.
We seek to optimize our children, to enable them to do and achieve everything that is good — health, wealth, knowledge and power — and along the way we try to actualize ourselves as the very best parents human kind has ever known. It is as if we approach having a family in the spirit of a Silicon Valley start-up. With cognitive science as our guide and no rules or conventions to hold us back, we seek to do something no one has ever done before.
The Internet isn't helping. It has lowered the cost of entry into a world of seemingly infinite information to almost nothing. It is now possible to keep track of everything. Google puts the world at your finger tips. Facebook and Twitter remind you to keep checking and warn you how much is going on while you drowse. We're not just talking about information overload. It's more than that.
Information isn't knowledge. And information that is fast and cheap, like fast, cheap food, isn't nourishing. But it is hyper-stimulating. And so it is, really, terrifying.
The bottom line seems to be that we know too much, understand too little and we are way too scared of what we might be missing. Every where we look, we see breakdown — mass shootings, athletes who cheat, politicians who refuse to lead, pederast priests, icebergs on the melt and wild storms let loose on the world. On and on.
Seen in this context, our focus on what we put in our mouths and the way we organize our family life can seem almost like a form of madness. It is a symptom. We are overwhelmed.
But the feelings may not be so new after all. I'll end with this poem by the German expressionist Jakob van Hoddis first published in 1911. (My translation.)
End of the World
Hats are flying from the pointy heads of citizens.
Screaming fills the air.
Roofs collapse and split in two
And on the coasts — we read — the tides are rising.
The storm is here, the wild seas are jumping
Up on land and shattering the dams.
Almost everybody has the sniffles.
Trains fall off bridges.
You can keep up with more of what Alva Noë is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe