The World Beyond Your Head: Part 5, The Weariness of the Self

Another location of contact between Matthew B. Crawford's The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction and Hunting Magic Eels concerns our struggles with mental health in this distracted and skeptical age.

As I recount in Hunting Magic Eels, when the self turned inward and away from the world it became increasingly neurotic. This neurosis is a part of what I call "the Ache" in Hunting Magic Eels. This Ache is driven by a withdrawal from a transcendent ground of value and worth to invest in the performance of self-esteem, comparing oneself to some social or self-selected standard of success. In doing this, however, we traded spiritual rest for psychic anxiety. 

Crawford describes the Ache by borrowing from what Alain Ehrenberg calls "the weariness of the self." Ehrenberg argues that the performance of the modern self is an exhausting, depleting project, one prone to failure. This performance fatigue makes us chronically vulnerable to depression. As Ehrenberg writes, "Depression presents itself as an illness of responsibility in which the dominant feeling is that of failure. The depressed individual is unable to measure up; he is tired of having to become himself."

Building upon this observation, Crawford writes:

Once upon a time, our problem was guilt: the feeling that you have made a mistake, with reference to something forbidden. This was felt as a stain on one's character...[Today] the dichotomy of the forbidden and the allowed has been replaced with an axis of the possible and the impossible. The question that hovers over your character is no longer that of how good you are, but of how capable you are, where capacity is measured in something like Kilowatt hours--the raw capacity to make things happen. With this shift comes a new pathology. The affliction of guilt has given way to weariness--weariness with the vague and unending project of having to become one's fullest self. We call this depression.

As Crawford goes on to say, this weariness of the self, this new pathology, is "especially threatening in a culture of performance."

Much of the rise of this new pathology is chronicled in Hunting Magic Eels in describing the origins of the Ache. With the collapse of the transcendent we no longer struggle with guilt, how God views our actions. We've turned inward to take up "the vague and unending project of having to become one's fullest self." But this turning inward has come with its own pricetag. We've exchanged guilt for the weariness of the self. 

God is dead, and now we're all so very, very tired of ourselves.

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