Writers have described 2020 in various ways. Tricia Hersey titled it: "The Year of Grief. The Year of Rest." Arundhati Roy said it felt like we're "walking through a portal." Through the lens of Stoicism, Ryan Holiday outlined how a crisis can make you better. My friend Jocelyn K. Glei called for rest and tenderness. Joshua Rothman wrote a beautiful essay about the unlived life.
For me, 2020 was the year of the soul's cry, a phrase borrowed from the Roman philosopher Epictetus.
There's nothing quite like your first global pandemic that puts you in a headlock and forces your attention. In the beginning, I facetiously called the pandemic an apocalypse; then I learned the original definition of apocalypse was “to uncover" or "reveal."
From realizing the magnitude of the pandemic and all it would consume to seeing the pernicious effects of racism to experiencing the vitriol on every side during a high-stakes election, time-worn illusions that kept us warmly ignorant were torn down like dusty, old drapes in an abandoned building. Light entered and revealed the rottenness that lived in the shadows. The realities that were typically in between the lines — or hidden completely — were totally visible, and the order in which reality rested was upended. Every stone — health care, the educational system, workplaces, supply chains, parenting, the government — was flipped over.
But this year also revealed the beauty of local communities, grassroots organizations, and resilience in the face of the unknown.
My group of creative peers and colleagues experienced revelations about their work and life in New York City. Unchecked desires and narratives bubbled up in lockdown. It was difficult to ignore because we were stuck inside, with ourselves, sometimes by ourselves. It was a forced self-awareness, a time unlike any other to zoom out and watch ourselves. The thing is, once you see, you can’t unsee.
For me, life before the pandemic felt like a treadmill. I loathe treadmills, and I don’t know how I got onto this one. Yet for most of my adult life, it felt like an invisible thumb was holding down the "increase speed” button. One minute I was pacing myself through life; then suddenly I was flailing my arms, burnt out, exhausted, angry, and broke.
Eventually, when you go too fast and get too tired, you get thrown off the treadmill — that's burnout — or you yank that cord that stops the treadmill instantly. I had never yanked that cord in my life. Have you?
Sometime around June 2020, I went back to my first journal entries from when I moved to Brooklyn in 2016. I could see in what I wrote that life back then was a pattern of making decisions in a hurry; in a mindset of survival or desperation; always feeling like I was catching up to the next thing, wanting more and more and more. This is either part of growing up or this is the life I subconsciously chose to lead to stay above water.
When you live most of your life in survival mode and then start to crawl out of it, the most humbling, painful realization is that the finger pressing down on the treadmill button was yours all along.
Yanking the cord
The pandemic yanked the red string for me. It pulled the cord out and everything just … stopped. It forced me to quit even if my body didn’t want to, and as the world paused collectively, our attention — if we allowed it — became aware of the realities that are so easily ignored. This treadmill — wake up, commute, work, grind — was so collectively normalized. It was a blueprint for career success (and many ways, sadly, it still is). But when that treadmill stopped, so many people reassessed every little facet of life. Thus, the “exodus” of people leaving big cities and high-demand lifestyles and escaping to places with easy access to a slower pace of life and the natural world.
This was a rare, shared moment, an opportunity to examine the stories we tell ourselves about work, identity, productivity, where we live and why, career, relationships, and unchecked desires. Why do you want the things you want? Who will you become if you get them (or if you don’t)? And what happens if what you get isn’t what you expected?
This self-realization can be painful. Especially in the middle of a global crisis — on top of possible job loss, illness or death, online meetings all day, lack of exercise and sun, and bad sleep — the last thing we want to see is our raw selves. I remember watching people getting flamed because they put out tone-deaf messages like, “If you don’t build a side business during this time, what are you really doing?” Stuff like that. Just plain stupid. Trust me, you’re forgiven if you didn’t seize the opportunity to heal childhood trauma or do your life’s greatest work while enduring a pandemic.
Our brains are fatigued; our souls are dehydrated. Our “surge capacity” is depleted. These are the moments in which we easily fall into bad habits. “Surge capacity is a collection of adaptive systems — mental and physical — that humans draw on for short-term survival in acutely stressful situations, such as natural disasters,” writes Tara Haelle. Surge capacity is not supposed to last over a year.
So, like many of my fellow citizens, I fell into a spiral of despair and self-defeat. Rage tweeting, binging on Netflix, smoking, stress eating, not exercising. Some ongoing health issues came back with a vengeance. One of the benefits of having an auto-immune disease like psoriasis is that it is a tangible barometer for my stress. When it appears, that means I’ve gone too far.
In those stressed-out moments, it felt like I lacked purpose. I was powerless to the events around me. As someone who has Stoic influences tattooed on my arm, I still failed to practice their philosophy. A mind with no purpose is like dying coals, eager to consume anything for fuel, so the low-hanging fruit of cynicism, pessimism, and self-destructive habits become the daily pattern.
I have burned out before, but this time was amplified by a combination of other factors, all at once. Things got so bad that almost everyone I spoke to could sense in my voice that something was wrong. Friends and colleagues encouraged me to take a break. So at the end of September, for the first time in my life, I took 15 days completely off. Unlike other times in the past, I couldn’t fly anywhere. No warm beaches with a cold drink in hand. No using my phone in a more fancy location. This was a staycation in the city that had gone ghost for months.
What ensued was what I call post-burnout clarity.
It’s when you’re thrown off the treadmill and your feverish desires start to cool off. Your butt is on the floor, and you literally begin to feel more grounded. There is self-accountability in these moments. The constant grasping for control is no longer external; the battle is internal, as it always was. Rather than demanding the world to bend to your wishes, you become aware of the story you’re telling yourself and open it up to new possibilities and perspectives. Maybe, just maybe, it’s not so much that your colleagues or boss misunderstand you, but you haven’t exercised or gotten any sun in weeks, your energy is low, and your patience is thin. It might be the reality that you’re living through a fucking global pandemic and leaders haven’t transferred stories of hope and realistic optimism, just outrage and misinformation. It might be that we need a lot less television and social media, and we need more locality, community, and nature.
A soul’s cry is your body’s way of telling you that something is fundamentally wrong. You’re unhinged. The goal is to get your feet back onto the ground. To feel your breath. During one of my Netflix binges, I rewatched “One Strange Planet,” narrated by Will Smith. He said something simple and profound: “We’re all made up of the same stuff, just mixed differently.” That sentiment, paired with the reality that we’re all just floating on this spinning rock that has been around for billions of years, is another reality to put life into perspective.
Looking to the Stoics
I reached out to my friend Jocelyn on what she might do if she were able to take time off of work but couldn’t travel anywhere. A two-week staycation. She recommended no consumption of information. No screens. Go into nature and take long walks.
After clearing the mind's cache — no books or podcasts, no screens, no consumption of any information for five days — I revisited the books that fundamentally shaped my life in the past. Doing that can feel like visiting an old friend who will tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear.
Epictetus, one of the original Stoic philosophers, said in The Art of Living:
“When the soul cries out, it is a sign that we have arrived at a necessary, mature stage of self-reflection. The secret is not to get stuck there dithering or wringing your hands, but to move forward by resolving to heal yourself. Philosophy asks us to move into courage. Its remedy is the unblinking excavation of the faulty and specious premises on which we base our lives and our personal identity.”
In essence, philosophy is about providing you with the tools to manage life’s challenges. When you’re burned out, your resilience and quality of thoughts have the durability of a wet napkin. This is why we lean on religious scriptures and philosophy and quotes from poets and writers, because we try to override our negative thoughts with positive and affirming ones. Language is perception, and perception is the story we tell ourselves.
When I repeat Marcus Aurelius’s words — "To be like the rock that the waves keep crashing over; it stands, unmoved and the raging of the sea still around it” — it helps me center myself. I can visualize all of my negative desires and thoughts like a sea surrounding me, trying to pull me in, splashing me on occasion to trigger me and get me to react.
Philosophy is an operating system. It’s a toolbox of language that helps heal the broken areas of our lives and greets the uncertain and unknown aspects with confidence and compassion. Everyone needs a philosophy — a set of beliefs, principles, mantras, or mental models that help us deal with life. The quality of our lives depends on the stories we tell ourselves, and we are the stewards of our own stories.
Imagine an impartial spectator
To be conscious of who you are, how you think, and what you do is an invaluable process because it leads to self-knowledge, and in turn, opportunity for change. Perhaps this is why practices like the 12 steps in AA and cognitive behavioral therapy first help the person become self-aware — to be conscious of the story they're telling themselves and support new narratives that help the individual move forward.
Russ Roberts, author of How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life, talks about self-awareness as an impartial spectator:
"This is a brave exercise that most of us go through life avoiding or doing poorly. But if you can do it and do it well, if you can hover above the scene and watch how you handle yourself, you can begin to know who you really are and how you might improve. Stepping outside yourself is an opportunity for what is sometimes called mindfulness—the art of paying attention instead of drifting through life oblivious to your flaws and habits."
Journaling and meditation are vital habits in cultivating self-awareness. The awareness is a work in progress, always stretching out to new corners in your mind. Over time, you can see your patterns, like you're hovering over them. If I learned anything by re-reading old journals when life was on pause, it showed me a clear pattern of my desires and behaviors. The same things I hoped to achieve in 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019 showed up in 2020. It made me question: Am I just running in circles? Is the nature of my desires so unattainable that I create these expectations to motivate me to work and strive for achievement? Or does it simply take a long time to build the life you want?
The key is to observe them rather than apply labels and judgements, good versus bad.
Self-awareness becomes real when you start accepting responsibility for your role in your own story. My friend Dash once said to me that you can view your life as a tragedy or as a comedy. You get to decide, but so often we choose tragedy because it’s easier. Self-victimization is soothing, and it can give us a sense of identity. Almost all paths toward self-awareness loop back to you: the realization that it was not the event, or your boss, or the weather, but your thoughts and beliefs about the situation — the story you tell yourself.
It doesn’t elude me that burnout could happen again.
My desires could outpace me. They might blind me from being grateful for what I have versus what I lack. My ego might flare up again because I don’t feel seen or respected at work or in my relationships. And in trying to maintain some semblance of control, I will again be at a crossroads: Do I stomp my feet and thrash around, demanding fairness and that I get things my way, or do I focus on what I can control and practice self-restraint?
People who lead enlightened lives have dealt with their fair share of adversity and have grown from it. It’s not to say these types of people don’t get angry or upset, even at the small things, but they have developed the skill of awareness to pause before responding or reacting. They can hear the bubbling of anger before it turns into a hiss; they can hear the unhelpful story they’re telling themselves, and they can consciously change the direction of those thoughts. If self-awareness is like a flashlight, those people choose to shine their attention on things that matter.
Maybe it takes a very long time to develop resilience. Maybe life is not about zero conflicts or pain, but about wise and moral actions that ultimately shape a better world, both for myself and for others. Burnout? I know it’ll happen because I am ambitious and vain and want the world all at once. But next time, I’ll hopefully return to self-awareness and a philosophy of courage that much sooner.