A Sunday sermon from The Idler Academy, on the redeeming power of negativity.
We live in a dictatorship of positivity. “Yes we can,” is the dogma of the age not just the exhausting creed of politicians. You and I must be happy and succeed in all our projects. Business success means maximal production. Kids are washed in affirmation and make entrepreneurs of themselves. We enjoy only amazing holidays, watch simply brilliant films, and generally talk in an excited lexicon flooded by superlatives. And it’s making us ill.
This is the conclusion of the Korean-German philosopher, Byung-Chul Han. His essay, The Burnout Society, has recently been published, giving us his work in English for the first time. He describes how a lack of negativity in life leads to hyperactivity followed by burnout. Because no-one can say no – to the boss, to the mobile, to the inner child, to the electorate – we become trapped in cycles of over-productivity, over-communication, and over-achieving. And, of course, no-one can live at this pitch. The upshot is an epidemic of depression and anxiety. “The complaint of the depressive individual, Nothing is possible, is only possible in a society that believes, Nothing is impossible,” Han writes.
Worse, our very psyches are overwritten with this code. It’s not actually our bosses or politicians who are exploiting us. We are self-exploiting, running the incessant command to achieve. Distractions and deadlines, amusements and multitasking have become a way of life. Earlier this year, Microsoft discovered that the average attention span has dropped to less than that of a goldfish. Microsoft needs to know because if it doesn’t deliver the speeding interface consumers crave, its opponents will.
The paradox of positivity is that it wrecks. “It is an illusion to believe that the more active one becomes, the freer one is.” Hyper-attention empties. When everything must be exceptional, the good feels naked. We’re left nervous, like a creature hunted on the savannah with nowhere to rest – only the threat is not out there, it’s internalized. Hence, panic spontaneously erupts when your phone crashes. Anger kicks out when the driver in front of you is fractionally slow at the lights. The midlife crisis is no longer midlife but is first experienced in your teens, then in your twenties, thirties, forties. “Depression is the sickness of a society that suffers from excessive positivity,” Han continues. And creation fatigue. Think of the blockbuster films released this Christmas. Star Wars was new 40 years ago; James Bond 60 years ago.
So what does Han counsel? In a word, contemplation or “profound idleness”. It’s the rediscovery of negativity, the active capacity to turn from this and that, and focus only on the other. For many of us hyper-achievers, this possibility will only emerge after a breakdown. The crash is a gift: no longer able to produce, exhausted by our own ability, we will be forced to say no and, if we are lucky, will realise that it’s liberating.
We may go further and learn to see, be mindful. Deep attention may follow after that. And the freshness of life might return. As Nietzsche observed, thinking and culture require “getting your eyes used to calm, to patience, to letting things come to you.” It requires unlearning the immediate reactivity to the next stimulus and instead taking control of the “inhibiting, excluding instincts.” Gradually, ruminative crowding lessens. Irritable abreactions can be contained. You pause.
Sabbath originally meant “stopping”. It’s a day not to. It’s an interval in which uselessness is celebrated. So this week, dare to exclude yourself, to be negative, to be glad of the fatigue that makes you want to curl up. This supposed social disaster is actually a moment of hope. Look, and you’ll see it contains the inspiration to not-to-do. Nothing could be your salvation.