I turn 52 later this month, and one of the good things about that is that I been around, you know?
Around long enough to remember a time when everyone didn’t begin the answer to every question with the word, “so,” or interrupt themselves mid sentence by asking their audience, “right?” Long enough to remember when “opinionated” was a word that didn’t describe every last one of us. “Political junkie,” too.
And the whole time I’ve been around, I’ve never heard so many people describe life as “exhausting.” In fact, up until a few years ago, I don’t think I ever heard anyone describe life as “exhausting.”
Except me, maybe. I’ve been remarking since at least my 30s on the truly awesome amount of work these capitalist bastards ask of you in this life just to stay fed, clothed and housed from the cradle to the grave. I mean, when you were a kid, did you have any idea?
Still, I don’t think I ever described this life as exhausting, exactly. That’s the sound of defeat. “Fatigue,” the legendary college football coach Bear Bryant used to drawl to justify his brutal conditioning program, “makes cowards of us all.”
So why is everybody talking these days about how “exhausting” it is to be: Black in America, female in America, queer in America. Well, because it is exhausting to be those things, of course. White fellers, if they avoid reading the newspaper and have a few pops before noon, can still take a week off of being who they are in relation to everyone else, and just Be. The other groups I named can’t take a fucking personal day. On their lunch break, some high-self-esteem-addicted jagoff is earnestly asking them for advice on how to be a better goddamn ally.
That honestly does sound exhausting, and if I’ve learned one thing this year it’s that I don’t know the half of it. (That’s a big thing to learn, for a guy like me—and to relearn, pretty much every day.)
Meanwhile, we’re all exhausted because of COVID. And I mean all of us. Not just nurses and psychologists and other frontline workers, but apparently even best-selling novelists, like Susan Orlean, who said in The New York Times this week, “I feel like I’m in quicksand. I’m just so exhausted all the time. I’m doing so much less than I normally do—I’m not traveling, I’m not entertaining, I’m just sitting in front of my computer—but I am accomplishing way less. It’s like a whole new math. I have more time and fewer obligations, yet I’m getting so much less done.”
Susan, I don’t think “exhausting” is a word we ought to use too freely, or one that any American (no matter how tired) ought to use lightly.
For one thing, it’s bad for morale. Just like when one person at the dinner table declares he’s “stuffed,” it ruins everyone’s appetite … when one teammate confesses she’s pooped, we all start to suck wind. I helped an army lieutenant colonel named Mark Weber write a book, Tell My Sons: A Father’s Last Letters. Dying of cancer, Weber told his grieving boys about some training he’d been through that lasted all day and most of the night for a week: “When someone on the team got tired, we stopped and we took a knee to rest. But we always got back up, and we never quit . . . never. Just like those young soldiers, we can all take a knee too, but if we don’t get back up and move out, we’re likely going to die or fall to pieces in that place.”
Also? As I said above, life is exhausting. Life in a democracy is especially exhausting. Life in a democracy whose soul is permanently twisted by Native American genocide and 200 years of slavery. Life in a loony bin full of immigrants from every corner of this crazy world (that’s us!). Life in a country that celebrates the individual—all 332 million of them! This was always going to be a hard country in which to be a good citizen.
It’s hard even for the most privileged of us—even those at the pinnacle of the capitalist system. Like the CEO of Coca-Cola, James Quincey, who told The New York Times Sunday, “When you become C.E.O. you think you’ve got this organizational pyramid and you’ve come at the apex, and now everyone works for you. But then you find out there’s another pyramid, but it’s upside down, and you’re the one person at the bottom. There’s a huge number of stakeholders who want to tell you what to do, and many of them don’t work in the business. So you deal with the board, the media, the investors, the analysts, the NGOs, the government. You have this whole galaxy of people you need to deal with …. If you haven’t gotten really clear on what are the few things that I want to tell people about and prioritize things, it can be quite destabilizing.”
Not to say “exhausting.”
Instead, how about rigorous, strenuous, arduous, onerous, burdensome, grueling, punishing, frustrating, enraging? Confusing, baffling, confounding, disconcerting, disorienting. Dangerous, treacherous—and sometimes, even dirty.
That’s what life is, my friends. That’s certainly what American life always was and always will be, much of the time, for its most responsible, alert and empathetic citizens. It is intellectually, emotionally, spiritually if not physically hard. Is that why people think America’s going to hell in a hand basket? Because it’s hard to live peacefully here, and they were led to believe it would be easy? They did call it “the pursuit of happiness,” did they not?
The more I think about the title of my own book, An Effort to Understand, the more I think “effort” is the most operative word, and the most understated one in the Robert Kennedy speech from which it is drawn. Mighty effort. Continuous effort. Repeated effort. Determined effort. Renewed effort. Indefatigable effort. And, with the grace of God, concerted effort to understand one another, to understand ourselves.
I love the old gospel song: “I been runnin’ for Jesus a long time (I’m not tired yet).”
In the book, I talk about my dad, who found a girlfriend, in his late seventies, after my mom died. Theirs was not a perfect union:
They were fond of each other, but they fought a lot, and sometimes bitterly. One night I heard him say quietly as he slipped into his bedroom and she into hers, “Let’s try ‘er again tomorrow, Betty.”
Communication is, let’s try ‘er again tomorrow.
America is, too.