10 min read

Why We’re All So Burned Out, What It’s Doing to Us, And a Week in Paris

Why We’re All So Burned Out, What It’s Doing to Us, And a Week in Paris

I’m Umair Haque, and this is The Issue: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported publication. Our job is to give you the freshest, deepest, no-holds-barred insight about the issues that matter most.

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  3. The Sephora kids explosion: obsession with beauty routines is reaching younger audiences (El Pais)
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  5. It’s the Working Class, Stupid (Prospect)
  6. Google Is Paying Publishers to Test an Unreleased AI Platform (Adweek)
  7. Why Law Firms Could Be Private Equity’s Next Conquest (Forbes)
  8. From unicorns to unicorpses: Why billion-dollar startups and even VC firms keep imploding (Fortune)

Why We’re All So Burned Out

How burned out would you say you’re feeling, on a scale of 1-10? An 11? A 47? We’d both had it, singed to the wick. So my lovely wife recommended the best therapy I know: a few days in Paris. Off we went. Let me tell you a little story, about burnout, life, love, truth, and…

When we go to Paris, we’re in a…normallish neighborhood. Not ultra posh, not decrepit. Just a nice, happy medium. It’s an old-school neighborhood, for those who get what I mean. And like much of Paris, it’s this striking combination of ancient and modern. And one of the reasons I love this little corner of the world is that there’s a cafe, right around the corner. Beautiful, old, and storied.

The Parisian cafe. It’s an institution all its own. The chairs, in a proper one, face the street, side-by-side. Do you know why? I’ll come back to that (so you can watch the people go by.) And in a city of few American style “grocery stores,” the cafe was a lifeline, and you could go there anytime, and get any sort of meal you wanted. And just…relax. 

In Paris, we become a cliche, my wife and I. She goes off to shop—it’s the best city in the world for that. And me? Every bit the portrait of guys like me for centuries before me, I sit in the cafe, smoke cigarette after cigarette—still not a crime or a sin there—and think, reflect, and write. The world spins around me. But for a guy like me? The terrace of a cafe in Paris, a notebook, a cigarette, and a coffee, on a rainy day? Kill me, because that’s it, the point of life. 

One night, we regrouped at the cafe, for dinner. I should say something. It’s not expensive. A meal there’ll cost you less than one at the Cheesecake Factory, which is kind of a crime against humanity, and I like the Cheesecake Factory. But the food at my little favorite cafe is mind-blowing. Yet it’s not the food that’s the point of my story. 

There, I began to notice something remarkable happening around me. People left with what Americans would call goofy shit-eating grins on their faces. Every single one, in fact. The waiters clapped customers on the back, old and new, welcoming them, smiling from ear to ear. I sat there, stunned, for a moment. Maybe that sounds like I’m overstating the case, but…

I’m not saying every last part of the city’s like this. It isn’t. My little corner, though, is.

Think about the state of the world these days. Our emotions. How we feel about a world going haywire. I quote you tons of statistics. More than half of young people are “completely overwhelmed,” “numb,” “paralyzed.” Anger, despair, and sadness have leapt off the charts. We don’t know how to navigate the chaos of meltdown, day by day, night by night.

And yet here I was, surrounded by…happiness. The real thing. Me, the cliche of the intellectual—I was the most serious guy in the place. Everyone was smiling, laughing, chatting, roaring. Couples from around the world met, tiny table beside tiny table, and exchanged conversations, beaming. The staff strode through the narrow aisles between, smiling and laughing and shouting to each other and customers alike. It was if everyone here was old friends. 

After observing all this for about two hours: have you noticed how happy this makes everyone, I asked my wife? She was digging into a gigantic dessert, and ignored my pointless question. 

So like the kind of Guy That I Am, I begin to think about all this…

The Story of the Institutions of Restoration

Do you know the story of the restaurant? Not yours or mine, but the. It’s far more interesting than you might think. 

The modern idea of the restaurant comes from Paris. There, a new institution was created. And it’s name says what it was for. The idea is literal. Restaurant: a place that restores you. Isn’t it funny how some things are hidden in plain sight? The original idea of the restaurant was a striking and complex one: you go to this place, not just to “eat,” but to be restored.

In a human way. You sit and dine, and through the food, you have a connection to nature and the earth again. Surrounded by people, neighbors, doing the same thing, you have a connection to society and humanity again. In a terrain of equals, you were restored politically. As it evolved, the restaurant was there to restore you as a human being: energetically, socially, culturally, even morally. Iti purpose was to revive you.

“The earliest modern-format "restaurants" to use that word in Paris were the establishments which served bouillon, a broth made of meat and egg which was said to restore health and vigour. The first restaurant of this kind was opened in 1765 or 1766 by Mathurin Roze de Chantoiseau on rue des Poulies, now part of the Rue de Louvre. The name of the owner is sometimes given as Boulanger. Unlike earlier eating places, it was elegantly decorated, and besides meat broth offered a menu of several other "restorative" dishes, including macaroni. Chantoiseau and other chefs took the title "traiteurs-restaurateurs".

While not the first establishment where one could order food, or even soups, it is thought to be the first to offer a menu of available choices.”

So the restaurant was a particular kind of an institution. A restorative institution. And it arrived in a certain context: modern life was thought to be deadening. Not just by the Romantics, but by generations of European intellectuals, too, from Durkheim to Marx down to Sartre and Baudrillard. Alienating, atomized, motivated by the whirring machinery of money and metal, singed through with greed and despair—modern life deadened the soul. The body. The spirit. 

And so the restaurant was created—but it wasn’t the only institution of restoration that came to be, as a way to be revived from the deadening, dreadful nature of modernity. Other great institutions of restoration were invented, too, that today, we take just as much for granted as the restaurant, whose very name we don’t often stop to think about. The park—literally created to give people fresh air to breathe and space to walk in. The library—created to enlighten and illuminate. 

These institutions of restoration would go on to shape modern life. They’d provide a bulwark against, and respite from, the deadness of it all. Moral deadness: individualism. Spiritual and emotional deadness: meaninglessness. Social deadness: disconnection and loneliness. Cultural deadness: the race to the lowest-common-denominator of capitalism’s latest flavor of shock, rage, greed, or spite. They’d come to form the fabric of our cities, providing not just a balance against the skyscrapers and factories and highway—but a form of protection from the ills of modernity themselves.

I understand my little Parisian cafe that way. And I treasure it and cherish it that way, too. Because the truth is that little by little, cafes like that have become harder and harder to find. You see, nobody was acting. None of what I experience and witness there is performative—like so much of contemporary life, from “influencers” to online rage to trolls to gaining followers or cable news’s dumb charades or what have you. It was 100% authentic, in a way that would’ve made Sartre proud. It was existentially authentic. We were all being-in-the-moment, as Heidegger would’ve said, ripping a page from the Buddha—but that moment, too, was something remarkable: a loving one. 

Because there, something remarkable was happening. We were all being restored. In all these deep senses. Morally, socially, culturally, energetically, spiritually. How could everyone not smile and laugh? Even cheer and roar? This was the phenomenology of restoration: the lived experience of it.

(Why) the Collective Conscious of Humanity is Burning Out

That word, phenomenology, just means: “the experience of a thing.” What’s burning us all out? It’s not really that we’re “working too hard.” That’s not what burnout is, really, at all. It’s the experience of being deadened.

In all the ways above. Being morally deadened, having your agency removed. Being socially deadened—isolated and lonelier. Culturally deadened: surfing Netflix’s latest trash-binge-watch or HBO’s latest hate-watch. Emotionally deadened: the world’s burning down around us, and there’s not a damn thing we can do about it, except bear witness and grieve, maybe.

The era we’re in—and I can’t call it modernity, since that’s what the institutions of restoration were invented in and for, so let’s just call it “after-modernity”—is profoundly, intensely deadening. Go ahead and admit it. Nobody surfs the internet to feel more alive. Nobody doom scrolls Twitter or joylessly envies “influencers” on TikTok to feel more alive. Day by day, night by night, we’re dying, in these profound, deeply human ways, “nauseated,” as Sartre would say, by the disturbing, distressing plight of what our civilization’s become. Billionaires plundering societies, and using the loot to set democracies on fire. “Artificial intelligence” with no purpose, point, or values. The immensity of extinction and planetary breakdown.

It’s burned us all out

The reason, though, isn’t just that “it”, meaning all of it, the dystopia, the weirdness, the horror, has. It’s also that we don’t have institutions of restoration.

What we have, if we’re very, very lucky—and I mean highly, incredibly lucky—are the institutions of restoration left over from yesterday. So living my life of relative privilege, I can go to Paris, and luxuriate in my glorious, beautiful cafe. But let’s face in, in America, forget it, in the wasteland that post-Brexit’s become, good luck with that—and those are still relatively rich parts of the world. 

If you’re very, very lucky, you have yesterday’s institutions of restoration around—parks, libraries, cafes, restaurants. And if you’re even luckier, you get to use them—if you have the time and energy left over in a life not destroyed and ravaged to the last ounce and microsecond by the exploitations of hyper capitalism. 

That’s not most of us. I appreciate how lucky I am to be able to head to my little cafe every so often, and aching for it only highlights the point: all we have, really, are yesterday’s institutions of restoration, and even then, only if we’re incredibly fortunate, to be living in places like Paris, New York, London, and so forth, or maybe little towns that haven’t been decimated by private equity barons and techno-dorks yet.

And yet life has only gotten more…deadening…since the prophets of modernity cried out for the need for institutions of restoration. If anything, life in after-modernity is even harsh, strident, soul-killing, numbing, wounding, and traumatic than it was then. Sure, you and I aren’t exactly Jean Valjean, being persecuted by Javert for purloining a loaf of bread. But today? We face all the implosive pressures of a “polycrisis,” from climate catastrophe to global economic stagnation to techno-alienation to isolation and meaninglessness, hence such sharp rises in despair, fear, and anger.

Yet what we have instead of institutions of restoration are something more like…shadow institutions of…being even more deadened. The doomscroll. The hate-watch. The binge-watch. The “influencer” selling you a perfect life to envy and hate yourself over. The million dollar handbag. The horrific spectacle of greed that’s the mega-billionaire who could buy your entire town, or fund stopping climate change for 75% of the planet, and still have money left over. The algorithm, the number, the chatbot. On and on this march of…nothingness…goes. 

And we’d be kidding ourselves badly if we didn’t admit that it wasn’t deadening us in all the ways above. That it could do anything but deaden us in those ways.

Our Teetering Civilization—and Rebuilding the World of Tomorrow 

So what we need, in my humble estimation, are institutions of restoration for this age. Not everybody is going to have the luxury of my Parisian cafe—let’s get real. In an age of impending climate shock? Fewer and fewer will have, and add to that list what we do have, parks, libraries, etcetera. 

What restores you, today? Be honest. Anything? The statistics tell me, for most people: nothing does. So our institutions of restoration are inadequate—deeply so. And hence our civilization is stuck, teetering on the edge, unable to forge its future anymore. The burnout of a civilization is no small thing.

Today, we have a practice, instead of a proper set of institutions of restoration, called “self-care.” But that isn’t restoration, not in the brilliant and beautiful that it’s most perfect exemplar, my little cafe, illustrates. You don’t go there alone, even if you do go there alone. You don’t do it by yourself, even if you’re just me, sitting there with notebook and cigarette and coffee. The life is the point. The people are the purpose. The milieu, as we’d say in French, is what matters. 

Somebody, after a few minutes, will strike up a conversation with me. And away we go. The waiters will clap me on the back, say hello, and inquire what I’m working on today. The process of being revived is something we do together. Restoration, in this sense, is a collective action, and public good.

I don’t know what institutions of restoration for this age are. Not yet. I think that we’ll have to invent them together, and those who do will be famous, and maybe even rich and successful, if that’s what matters to you, or maybe just something historic, in the same way that some cafes from their golden age are still around today.

But I do think that we need them, we don’t have them, and while I treasure yesterday’s—that’s the classicist in me—I also know that they’re too antiquated and rare, now, to give us, on a social scale, what we really need most. 

Restoration. From the burnout of watching a civilization on fire. And I think that matters, too, in a deep way: maybe we have to begin there, to turn it all around, too. Revived and restored, to take on the new challenges of this implosive age.

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