Chapter 5: Fatigue
Fatigue is not necessarily an obstacle to happiness. In moderation, fatigue "leads to sound sleep and a good appetite, and gives zest to the pleasures that are possible on holidays." But excessive and prolonged fatigue becomes "a very grave evil."
Peasants in undeveloped countries appear to be very old by age thirty, worn out by excessive toil over many years. And while industrialization has reduced the amount of physical labor that is necessary, a different kind of fatigue has set in that tends to be much pronounced among the wealthier members of society, businessmen, and "brain-workers." The mental fatigue of modern life is a very difficult thing to recognize, as it lacks physical expression.
The modern world is a place of constant hubbub and interaction, is the constant assault of the senses,
- In a noisy environment, such as the industrial city, there is a constant cacophony of noise and men are fatigued from the "subconscious effort" in focusing on that which matters. We much ignore much that assails all of our sentences, but ignoring is not passive or simple, but requires recognizing it and assessing each of a thousand things an hour as unimportant.
- The crowded environment is also stressful. As the natural instinct of man, as with any other animal, is to assess any stranger of his species as friendly or hostile - and much in the same way each person we encounter during a busy rush hour must be recognized and identified before he can be ignored. Commuting leaves a person with frayed nerves "and a tendency to view the human race as a nuisance."
In each of these instances, there is a constant volume of fears and threats, real or imagined. We are constantly vigilant, and constant vigilance exhausts our mental resources. Fatigue in such cases is due to worry, and while the larger worries of life can be abided with a bit of mental discipline, those that activate the most primitive of our reactions cannot.
(EN: My sense is that, were it possible to completely disregard potential signs of danger, which is to say to fail to recognize such things rather than ignoring them [which requires recognizing, identifying, and consciously disregarding] would be tantamount to being careless, and leave us vulnerable against the few genuine threats.)
In terms of the larger, more slow-moving worries, mental discipline can be of service - most men and women are very deficient in their judgment and philosophy, and are prone to worry about things that are improbable, and over which they have no control. Consider the businessman who, instead of recovering from work in the evening, instead reviews the problems about which they can do nothing at the moment, considering what they should have done in the past or might do in the future. The "midnight madness" of the insomniac seldom provides a practical strategy.
"The wise man thinks about his troubles only when there is some purpose in doing so" and at other times he may choose to think about other things, or sometimes to think of nothing at all. Our first reaction, much like any animal, is to respond to distress - but after that, man is different to animals in that he considers what, if anything, can be done. If he has intelligence and common sense, a man can quickly form a plan of action to avoid or mitigate the damage to himself and his interests without much rumination.
More difficult still are the situations in which there is nothing to be done, and it requires great mental discipline and solemnity to accept the consequences, as an act of fate. In this regard, the narcissist who assumes he can control those things he cannot and the imbecile who fails to recognize the control he possesses are equally debilitated and prone to needless fretfulness and worry.
But the great majority of worries are over trivial matters, the consequences of which are negligible and certainly not worth the effort to worry and ruminate upon them. A great many times, we find that our worries were entirely unfounded.
The author speaks of his personal fear of public speaking. He was plagued by distress and worry beforehand, and wished that he might break his leg so he could have an excuse to avoid it. How foolish this seemed after the speech was delivered. How foolish it was, rather than merely seemed.
A great deal of nervous fatigue can be dispelled by recognizing that matters are more trivial than we imagine them to be, and by recognizing that our ability is much less than we imagine it to be. If in assessing a concern we as "how likely" rather than "what if" and consider contingency plans for dealing with things that may go wrong to the degree that the damage and probability merits, our worries would be far less than they are.
He considers physiology, and the degree to which physical fatigue can be minimized, and considers that there have been great strides and wondrous inventions to understand the capacities of man's body and extend his power while not overtaxing them. However, the capacities of man's mind have been greatly neglected.
Emotional fatigue is a species of mental fatigue that wears upon us. It is panic that causes us much distress, and which clouds the mind like a toxin, thereby preventing us from doing the only thing that will alleviate the cause of distress - i.e. to think, calmly and clearly, toward a solution.
It's suggested that one of the symptoms of an impending "nervous breakdown" is an exceeding sense of self-importance: that one's work is somehow critical, and that one's self is indispensible. This is a cancer of the ego, which feeds upon itself. (EN: It is also a fear response - if one's work is unimportant and others can handle it, an employer might recognize that a man is not necessary.)
Another brief bit mentions the need of people to always find a way to occupy themselves as a manner of distracting themselves from their thoughts of misfortune. Aggrandizing little problems causes us to ignore the serious ones, and inventing problems where none exist causes us to ignore our own contentment.
It is not our work that causes us misery, but the trouble we inflict on ourselves, using work as an excuse.
"The psychology of worry is by no means simple," and developing mental discipline takes time - but it pays off in that we are able to get through our days with fewer distractions, make better and more effective decisions, and get a good night's sleep.
He ruminates a bit on sleep, as its importance is greatly underestimated. Just as recovering from physical fatigue requires stopping physical activity to rest, so does recovering from mental fatigue require ceasing mental activity. He also maintains that our conscious thoughts guide our unconscious thoughts - our minds are prone to drift to dreadful thoughts and our sleep is prone to nightmares if we daily torture ourselves. So exercising mental discipline in conscious areas of our lives will also alleviate the instances in which we seem beset by troubling thoughts.
Learning to appreciate progress rather than obsessing about success can alleviate anxiety. He speaks of a writing task that took him several months, as he could only spare a few hours at a time to work on it. This is not uncommon, and in earlier life he was constantly troubled because he was eager to complete the work - but in older life he has discovered that marking his progress and appreciating the fact that the work was progressing toward conclusion did much to alleviate his distress. The work of some months should not cause us worry because it is not completed in the first day or week.
Worry is a form of fear, which produces mental and emotional fatigue. While we are taught to put aside our fears, the more effective solution is to confront them, analyze them, and work upon them. The notion of "courage" in the face of fear is misguided because the practices that are suggested are not to face fear at all, but merely to turn away from it. To "think of something else" is the wrong approach, as the fear remains and we have done nothing to address its cause. Courage rests in doing what can be done, and accepting what cannot.
And it can be noted with some irony that "courage" is often used to describe situations in which an individual is motivated to trade a small fear for a larger one. The young solider is brave not because he has mastered his fear of being wounded or killed, but has been taught to fear disgrace and shame worse than physical harm. He does not go over the top because he his brave in the face of danger, but because he is a coward in the face of social disgrace.
Another source of fatigue is overstimulation - a man who is busy during his working hours comes to loathe inactivity when he is away from work, and seeks amusements that are equally if not more engaging than the busyness of his business. Those pleasures which excite our senses, and which are the easiest to obtain, merely overtax our senses.
There is also a great burden placed upon a man by the expectations of his peers and society - to be required by law or social custom to do certain things and refrain from others, and to the detriment of oneself. Even in social situations the rigid rules of etiquette require tense concentration and acute attentiveness that prevents us from relaxing in the company of others and being our true selves. There's little to be done about it, as the climate of a culture dictates this and the social norms do not turn quickly.
One of the worst features of mental fatigue is that it is self-sustaining. Fears give rise to more fears, worry to greater worries, until a man is entirely self-absorbed and immune to comfort - as his mind tells him that taking his ease will make matters worse and he must instead increase his attentiveness to them. He stuffs down his food rather than enjoying a meal, frets away idle moments instead of relaxing, and avoids pleasure as a means to overcome that which is causing him distress.