Lately, a caring section of humanity appears concerned about a growing number of educated youths feeling “burnt out”. Several studies are published but no convincing panacea has been found to eradicate the evil. In its recent session in Geneva in the last week of May 2019, the World Health Organisation tended to classify burnout as a disease, but finally described it as an “Occupational phenomenon”, “a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”
In the Oxford Dictionary of Psychology, Prof. Andrew M Colman defines “burnout” as “An acute stress disorder or reaction characterized by exhaustion resulting from overwork, with anxiety, fatigue, insomnia, depression and impairment of work performance.” These basic disorders manifest themselves in symptoms ranging from common depression to even an impulse for ending one’s life. Often an average sufferer suspects some inscrutable malady in his system and submits to a macabre series of tests, specialists guesstimating phantom causes, in the process draining the patient’s vitality and resources. Ironically, if the sufferer belongs to a superior order of mental culture, this creates an intellectual turmoil in him, causing psychosis.
Needless to say, the phenomenon is different from the sudden behavioural change of some people turning violent, a pervert upshot of career or even private frustrations. The “burnout” cases embrace a community of mostly youths who had consciously or unconsciously nurtured some worthwhile expectations from life – rather from themselves. In adolescence all of them had natural and spontaneous dreams and a creative imagination; but unknown to them, such gifts were twisted or smothered to their ghosts; they reappeared as delusions, phantasms and mirages, thanks to the youth’s overindulgence in numerous contrived social media, during or beyond their tedious working hours. Their inner being cannot but revolt.
The next most important reality to remember in this context is that every individual is an anatomical idealist. Indeed, even the most despicable human being is no exception. An example: till the middle of the 19th century, a criminal group known as Thugs was a terror for travellers in central and eastern India. A Thug would accompany an unsuspecting pilgrim or a merchant and at an opportune moment throw around the prey’s neck a yard of linen and tighten it at lightning speed, killing him instantly and ransacking his person. It was one determined policeman, W H Sleeman (1788-1856), who liquidated these gangs. One evening, a captured gang leader was asked, “Hope you will spare a traveller once you realise that he carried nothing valuable, right?” The Thug almost revolted at such suspicion and stated, “Sahib, are we so mean that we will back out from duty simply because we had nothing to gain? If providence had brought us together, we must apply our expertise!”
Or take another example. We read in the reminiscences of the late centenarian social reformer of Gujarat, Ravishankar Maharaj (Vyas) how once, when he exhorted a young man to give up his hereditary practice of stealing, entering homes by digging holes in the wall, the fellow humbly said, “Maharaj, I’ll give up, if you insist, but imagine how difficult it is to resist when the goddess Lakshmi, often buried as coins or jewellery, calls out to me to liberate her!” Can we dispute his idealism?
Let us examine the relevance of this factor of idealism in the context of our own, dear country. Youths in pre-independent India were much more hard-working than today’s. (The saving grace was they were intimate with nature.) Rarely any relief came from the sarkar, even when there were terrible calamities. People had to labour till their last drop of sweat. But, barring negligible exceptions, even the most ignorant youth was guided by a conscious ideal, however small: he must serve his parents and elders and next, be useful to the kin and community.
Labour inspired by an ideal does not exasperate. If thousands of youths who, during the long period of our freedom struggle, faced bullets and braved gallows but never felt burnt out, it was because of their lofty ideals. The youths feeling burnt out today have a goal, but no ideal. The goal is to earn and enjoy. One can achieve this goal by satisfying one’s bodily hunger, through success in enterprises by smart application of mind, and satiating emotions through romance and enjoyment. But there is something more in us than the body, mind and emotions—that remains uncared for: our inner self or soul. That can be satisfied only if we hitch our works and occupation to the ideal of serving the truth—and no category of activity is beyond this scope.
Truth is divine and there is no activity beyond the jurisdiction of the Divine. It is simply an approach, a transformed attitude that makes all the difference. You work for your salary, yet the work becomes an offering to the Divine, for he dwells in everything. This link keeps some diligently honest, courageous and above greed, eliminating the possibility of any hidden guilt contributing to the process of burning out. It inspires love for the work.
The time devoted to pleasure-seeking could be yet another fuel for the burning, for only inner quietude, achieved through meditation on the purpose of life, a silent quest for the ultimate ideal, can bring true relaxation.
The process of this awareness must begin in one’s infancy, initiated by parents and continued in the early stages of learning—probably a far-fetched hope today! But no proxy for it.
Author and recipient of several awards, including the Sahitya Akademi Fellowship