I spent last week in a posh beach hut somewhere very hot, sleeping off the latest ICANN meeting and reading a stack of books. But mostly just sleeping.
ICANN meetings are inhuman. The nice ‘back to school’ bit, exchanging cheery hellos in the hallways with people you’ve not seen for months, is over in the first eighteen hours. From then it’s an unmerciful eight or nine day slog through jetlag, air conditioning, bad tempers, disinformation, misinformation and information overload. Forget about having time for meals, exercise or sufficient sleep; I ration my fluid intake because there literally isn’t enough time to go to the loo. (This is bad; I nearly always get what I now call my Tuesday Migraine.) I did not get outside in daylight from the afternoon I took the Piccadilly Line to Heathrow to a ten-minute walk to an external meeting, seven days later. That’s not at all unusual. The meetings are scheduled and conducted as if the people taking part don’t occupy human bodies. The topic of ICANN volunteer burnout is an evergreen, especially people who aren’t paid lobbyists of one sort or another. As a friend wrote to me this morning:
“The result (of fewer volunteers doing an increasing amount of policy work) is that the organization retreats from its roots as a bottom-up, multistakeholder policy body to a staff-driven stakeholder interest-based policy organization. If that transition takes place, then the fundamental position of ICANN in the Internet’s management ecosystem may change significantly.”
But that’s not what I want to talk about.
Other people’s books are always more interesting than the book you’re reading. This is how I came to cast aside Eleanor Catton’s ‘The Luminaries’ in favour of Ron Chernow’s 1989 history of international finance, ‘The House of Morgan’. (I’d actually thought there would be a lot more about Keynes in it than there was and, yes, I wanted to read all about Jack Morgan’s yachts.)
One odd little strain running through the book was the strain of over-work, and how it was to be expected and dealt with. Collapse from nervous exhaustion and working too hard – by WASP bankers, of course, not their cleaning ladies – was so common as to be a frequent topic of conversation and correspondence.
Pierpoint Morgan himself suffered constant ailments all his life and was well known to both dislike and be addicted to his job. He took large chunks of time off and was quite open about working only nine months of the year. It wasn’t just the hereditary rulers of JP Morgan who took months off at a time. Several of the partners profiled in Chernow’s book worked to the point of damaging their health, took a few months off and came back. One was quite open about the fact that he only wanted to work nine months in twelve, and was subsequently invited to do just that. No less a personage than CT’s own very occasional contributor, Montagu Norman, then head of the Bank of England, worked himself into a burnout over the Gold Standard. Jack Morgan kindly offered Monty the use of his yacht to cross the Atlantic for a few months of wartime leave in the early 1940s. (Old Monty declined, saying he was already en route to Quebec.)
But now I think of it, the Victorians were all over this. Florence Nightingale repeatedly worked herself into exhausted collapse, and then took to the chaise longue for weeks or months. Dickens, too, had a thing where nervous collapse and physical depletion would just kind of come to a head every now and then. Then he would rest, rest, rest, and after a while, resume. I don’t know if chimney sweeps got it, too.
But somewhere in the late twentieth century we forgot about all this. With antibiotics and behaviourism and god knows what else, the mind body connection got disjointed. People stopped having a good excuse to say they were spent. When burnout and chronic fatigue were ‘discovered’ in the 1980s, the popular view was – and still is, for the most part – incredulity and a sense that people whose bodies had suddenly and seemingly inexplicably forgotten how to be well were somehow faking it. Or asking for it.
An old friend who was dean of students at a US university told me that at the start of her career students who got mononucleosis – which often presages chronic fatigue – would just go home for a semester and sleep it off. The following term they’d be back, fighting fit. But by the 1990s, they would fight it and fight it and lose, and two years later still be dragging about campus, white-faced and heavy-footed and trailing incompletes.
Put it this way, when’s the last time you heard of someone actually convalescing?
There are all sorts of structural economic reasons why the over-achieving classes are no longer allowed to recover from the illnesses and exhaustions whose slow and windy pace we once had a humdrum familiarity with. And it’s hard to tell if extended periods of inactivity or sub-par abilities are purely the preserve of the Nightingales and the Morgans and the Woolfs, or if they’re just the ones whose day to day productivity is better chronicled. (Early research into ‘yuppy flu’ showed it was anything but; the most frequently afflicted US demographic was working age, working class Hispanic women.)
When something stops having a name, it gets harder to track and compare across generations. Nowadays, it seems easier to categorise fatigue or burnout as depression, as if it’s somehow anomalous and not something entirely to be expected. When the only tool you have is antidepressants, every indeterminate ailment becomes the nail. How many cases of post-natal depression, for example, are purely the symptoms of hard core sleep deprivation?
Exhaustion lowers inhibitions and mood, and drastically affects judgement. But we have a working culture that pretends it simply doesn’t matter. 11pm conference call? Sure. Five hour show and tell? No problem. Working lunch? What other kind is there? But the one thing we are not allowed to say is that we are tired. Too. Damn. Tired. For all their whacky notions and prudery, the Victorians were far ahead of us.