The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Everyone is tired. We need to give ourselves an actual break.

Pictured: the author, writing this column. (iStock)

As of Monday, all adults over 16 in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico are eligible to receive the coronavirus vaccine. The predominant emotion among those now in line is excitement. But not just excitement that the pandemic is winding down: When it comes to getting their jabs, many Americans seem most thrilled for an excuse to take a break.

The vaccines are known to cause side effects — fever, chills, tiredness and headache — especially on the second dose. Thus the follow-up shots in particular are being looked forward to like a grim Christmas morning. I’ve lost count of the number of friends who have, jokingly but not really jokingly, expressed the desire for an unimpeachable excuse to lie down.

Why are so many of us so eager for the chance to feel like crap? Looked at more closely, this yearning for vaccine side effects seems like a manifestation of a much larger malaise.

Every era has its typical disorder, but our own might have several. Even before the pandemic, our depression and anxiety were well-documented; so, too, were our burnout and anomie. The coronavirus has allowed us to put a name to our feelings: These days we’re “languishing,” or “hitting the wall.” Underlying it all is a feeling of being deeply, deeply tired.

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The United States has never had a great understanding of leisure, let alone actual rest. From our Protestant work ethic to our bootstraps mythology, we have enshrined work as the highest good — quietude is, if not a sin, an indulgence we do not quite deserve. Our capitalist system privileges and rewards constant growth; we tend to feel worthless if we’re not being “productive” or optimizing ourselves in some way. And the culture of precarity that emerged after the 2008 recession has made pressing pause seem even riskier: The “fear of falling,” as Barbara Ehrenreich defined it as far back as 1989, is a permanent feature of our subconscious.

In the past year, there has been a tendency to blame our tiredness on the drudgery of living through a pandemic — the persistent fear, the loneliness, the grief and the locked-down days that bleed one into another. But none of these feelings are really new; as we’ve moved through the pandemic naming and classifying the different symptoms of an actual disease, we’ve simply stumbled upon words to identify the other things we feel.

So instead of snapping back to normal once we’ve had our shots, we should take our newly recognized existential tiredness as an indication that it’s time to change course — to realize that we need to give ourselves an actual break.

But how? Upper middle-class Americans are particularly prone to what the Atlantic writer Derek Thompson describes as “workism”: the conviction that work is not just necessary but “the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose.”

One shift might be to take advantage of what we’ve learned from the past year, and intentionally turn our energy back to things that matter. If the pandemic has awakened us to the fact that our friends and loved ones give meaning to our lives, we ought to consider expending our productive impulses on them, rather than the office “family” that is not, in fact, a family at all — and shouldn’t be privileged as such.

Instead of giving in to our work-guilt, we could push back: We could press upon employers the value not in offering a day off “if you need it,” but a day off, period. The more fortunate among us might choose to rest against our inclinations, to allow ourselves to take that day, and then take another — and also to recognize that those around us deserve the same. At a certain level of uptake, norms might begin to change. But that will take some brave first movers — or rather, not-movers.

The angst underlying our second-shot eagerness is a privileged sort of discomfort. All U.S. adults are vaccine eligible, but not everyone has access to one. And many Americans are actually declining the shot out of fear that the side effects longed-for by the Zooming classes might force them to miss out on much-needed pay. It is one thing to be a languishing master of the universe, another to be an exhausted warehouse worker forced to urinate in a bottle. We are all tired, but for many, rest is even further out of reach.

Still, this is one place where a change in sentiment at the top might yield benefits all the way down. If the pandemic has shown us that what we’re missing is rest, reestablishing our relationship with leisure could be good for us all.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: To beat back vaccine hesitancy, start with churches

Mili Mitra: A tiny island nation has lessons for the next stage of the pandemic

Megan McArdle: The pandemic has been awful. It could have been so much worse.

The Post’s View: The U.S. has vaccinated half of adults. The problem is the second half.