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Neur­as­thenia:” Cur­ing Your Rest­less­ness

At the turn and begin­ning of the 20th cen­tury, life was chan­ging rap­idly for Amer­ic­ans. People were mov­ing from the farm to the city and tak­ing jobs in the new indus­tri­al eco­nomy. Con­sumer­ism as we know it today really began to take root in soci­ety. Where most people had pre­vi­ously made the things they needed to live, now mail-order cata­logs made thou­sands of products avail­able to any­one in any part of the nation. New laws were short­en­ing the work day and work week, and people finally had some leis­ure time. Amuse­ment parks like Coney Island drew huge crowds, as people poured into the park to for­get about their troubles.

New tech­no­logy was being developed every day, and life was mov­ing at a faster pace than ever before. It wasn’t an easy trans­ition for every­one. People believed that all this new hub­bub was mak­ing them ill, leav­ing them with head­aches, fatigue, depres­sion, insom­nia, weak­ness and a whole host of oth­er symp­toms. George Miller Beard was the first to dia­gnose these symp­toms as “neur­as­thenia,” an ail­ment he believed to be caused by mod­ern civilization’s tax­ing effect on the nervous sys­tem.

Even those who didn’t feel they were suf­fer­ing from neurasthenia’s phys­ic­al symp­toms felt plagued by a sense of “unreal­ity.” They felt shift­less­ness, anxious, and rest­less­ness. On the farm their lives had been guided by the chan­ging sea­sons, they ate what they grew, and scratched out a life from the land. Now they lived in a tene­ment apart­ment, used indoor plumb­ing and elec­tri­city, and ate canned food. Cars were repla­cing wag­ons and chan­ging the way life was lived. Magazines, con­sumer goods, and movies had opened up an entirely new world of hori­zons and pos­sib­il­it­ies. It seemed as if life out­side one’s door was pulsat­ing and vibrant, yet always frus­trat­ingly out of reach. Life felt flimsy and insub­stan­tial com­pared to what seemed pos­sible. Pop­u­lar lec­tur­ers, authors, and quack doc­tors prom­ised to rec­ti­fy this prob­lem and impar­ted advice about how to restore and find great­er vim, vig­or, and vital­ity. And yet the more people looked for it, the more elu­sive it seemed.

Mod­ern “Neur­as­thenia”

While the cause of neur­as­thenia was nev­er agreed upon and it’s no longer con­sidered offi­cially recog­nized as psy­cho-phys­ic­al con­di­tion, the feel­ings asso­ci­ated with it are quite real and seem to be exper­i­en­cing a resur­gence these days. Men have become stricken with what I’ve decided to call “mod­ern neur­as­thenia.” Do you have it? Well pull up a chair and we’ll see if we can’t get you dia­gnosed.

The Symp­toms

Do you feel lost, rest­less, or shift­less?

Do you feel like there’s this great life you should be liv­ing but you just don’t know how to make it hap­pen?

Do find your­self wish­ing that life would finally start for you?

Do you feel anxious about your life, sure there’s some­thing else you’re sup­posed to be doing but you don’t have any idea what it is?

Do you feel like you’re life is gen­er­ally going great and you’re doing the kind of things that you want to do, but you just have this sink­ing feel­ing that maybe you’re miss­ing out on some­thing?

The Causes

Neur­as­thenia is back for the same reas­on it plagued our for­bear­ers; our expect­a­tions have not kept pace with chan­ging tech­no­logy and cul­ture. Tech­no­logy has leapfrogged ahead in the past couple of dec­ades with the inter­net, cell phones, Twit­ter, Face­book, and Black­ber­ries put­ting us in instant touch with any­one in the world. With Google maps we can vir­tu­ally zoom any­where on earth and a wealth of inform­a­tion is right at our fin­ger­tips.

Our lives are also sat­ur­ated with media. We’ve been exposed to thou­sands of com­mer­cials, movies, and tele­vi­sions shows. How many images have we absorbed of SUV’s power­ing to the edge of a cliff, awe­some rooftop parties in LA, sweet Man­hat­tan apart­ments mira­cu­lously ren­ted by strug­gling 20-somethings, vaca­tions on private islands, legendary road trips and so on.  The images we con­sume are full of moments show­cas­ing life at its most vital and extraordin­ary.

And so our minds are filled with the vast pos­sib­il­it­ies the world has to offer, and tech­no­logy makes us feel that all these pos­sib­il­it­ies are just with­in our reach. But the real­it­ies of our lives really haven’t changed much. Many aspects of our lives have sped up and become easi­er, but lots of things haven’t. We can instantly chat with our friend in Argen­tina, but we’re no closer to instantly tele­port­ing there. Tons of inform­a­tion is avail­able on the web but it still takes just as long as it ever did to read and absorb it. We still need to get jobs and pay rent and work at our rela­tion­ships.

It is this gap, the gap between our expect­a­tions about the world and how we really exper­i­ence it that causes our mod­ern “neur­as­thenia.”  New media and tech­no­logy has seem­ingly brought the whole world just with­in our reach. But we can nev­er seem to grasp it. We want to magic­ally take it all in and we can’t. And so we feel depressed and anxious. We are sure that unlike us, oth­ers have found a way to lay hold of all the good stuff out there. We have this feel­ing that some­where bey­ond our life, real life is tak­ing place. It feels as if they are so many pos­sib­il­it­ies and choices out there, so many that we’re abso­lutely over­whelmed by them. We don’t know where to start, where to dive in. We’re thus para­lyzed, and don’t do any­thing. And then we feel shift­less and rest­less because we feel bad that we’re not doing stuff. Because there’s so much we should be exper­i­en­cing! But then we feel over­whelmed again, and then, well, you get the idea.

The Cure

Neur­as­thenia used to be cured with quack elixirs and elec­tro­ther­apy. But there’s really no need to zap your junk to feel bet­ter. If our mod­ern feel­ings of rest­less­ness and shift­less­ness is caused by the dis­con­nect between our expect­a­tions and real­ity, then the cure lies in clos­ing that gap. Instead of being over­whelmed by the seem­ingly end­less pos­sib­il­it­ies in life, you must hone in on those things you truly want to do and can do.

Fig­ure out what you can do. A lot of men were raised by par­ents who did a bit too muchcod­dling. They praised their kids for everything and any­thing. They told them that they could do any­thing in the world they wanted to. These par­ents were con­cerned about their children’s self-esteem, but this cod­dling often withered their kid’s abil­ity to find a place in the world by rob­bing them of the chance to hone in on their true tal­ents and abil­it­ies. Con­vinced that their poten­tial is infin­ite, many men today can­not pick a major or a pro­fes­sion and feel lost, ever on the search for what they were made to do.

Every man must have lofty aims and ambi­tions. But he must tem­per his expect­a­tions with a dose of real­ity. Not all of us are going to be rich and fam­ous. We need to hon­estly assess what we’re really cap­able of:

I have said that a high ideal is essen­tial to a com­pletely suc­cess­ful life. But in the real­iz­a­tion of our aim it is quite neces­sary to form an ideal com­men­sur­ate with our abil­it­ies. Many a man has failed in his life-work because his notions of what he ought to do were mar­velously bey­ond his power of exe­cu­tion. Such a man forms so high a con­cep­tion of what he would like to accom­plish that he has no heart to attempt any­thing in earn­est… This intense burn­ing desire on the part of com­mon people to become mil­lion­aires, or mer­chant princes, or rail­road kings, or some­thing bey­ond their powers and oppor­tun­it­ies has filled our Amer­ic­an com­munit­ies with hun­dreds of rest­less, dis­con­ten­ted, use­less men.

One of the most valu­able les­sons for the young to learn is that it takes a great man to accom­plish a great under­tak­ing, and that both are neces­sar­ily few in one gen­er­a­tion. If this les­son were learned and heeded half the heartache of our mature years might be avoided. Effort, and high resolve, and noble pur­pose are excel­lent qual­it­ies of char­ac­ter; but they can nev­er enable a man to lift him­self by the boot-straps nor accom­plish the unat­tain­able. It is at once the weak­ness and great­ness of some to con­ceive what they attempt to do of so high a degree of excel­lence that no human power can reach it. The nat­ur­al effect of this is a rest­less desire to accom­plish some­thing far bey­ond what is ordin­ar­ily attained even by sur­pass­ing tal­ent. When such a desire has taken pos­ses­sion of the heart, the usu­al achieve­ments of men seem poor indeed. With their broad views and far-sighted stretch of thought, it seems trivi­al to come down to the com­mon affairs of every-day life. It is to them a small thing to do good and get good in the plain old com­mon-sense way. J. Clin­ton Ransom, The Suc­cess­ful Man, 1886

While we’re big believ­ers in the idea of the self-made man, if you don’t have the tal­ent, you’ll nev­er boot­strap your way to being LeBron James. Stop drown­ing in the sea of infin­ite pos­sib­il­it­ies; take an hon­est assess­ment of what you’re cap­able of, fig­ure out a real­ist­ic goal to put your abil­it­ies to use, and start work­ing for that goal.

Remem­ber, every man should want his life to be extraordin­ary. But no one’s life is extraordin­ary in every respect.  Fig­ure what areas of your life you want to be extraordin­ary in. If it’s clear you’re nev­er going to be a world fam­ous author or act­or, then be an extraordin­ary friend, hus­band, and fath­er.

Fig­ure out what you want to do. We often feel rest­less because there seems like there are so many amaz­ing oppor­tun­it­ies out there in the world. We flip through magazines and see people scuba diving in the Carib­bean, men camp­ing in Yel­low­stone, and guys party­ing in New York City. We turn on the TV and see shows where guys are liv­ing it up in cool cit­ies, dat­ing hot ladies, and work­ing at a cool job. We’re like a hungry kid win­dow shop­ping at a candy store. Everything looks so darn enti­cing but out of reach. And so we feel anxious. We don’t have a net big enough to cap­ture all of these cool pos­sib­il­it­ies.

We’re drown­ing in these pos­sib­il­it­ies, and we need to turn the faucet down. The truth is that we don’t actu­ally want all of those choices. We have to sep­ar­ate what we think we should want to do from we actu­ally want do. You might have been told that you should study abroad, you should back­pack through Europe, you should live in a loft in some big city, you should, blah blah blah. These “shoulds” lodge in our sub­con­scious and make us feel anxious; if we don’t do these things we worry that we’re miss­ing out on some­thing. But this anxious­ness often pre­vents from doing any­thing at all. Afraid we can’t do everything, we do noth­ing.

But you have to eval­u­ate which things you really want do and own that choice instead of feel­ing ashamed of it. If you’re a home­body who hates trav­el­ing, stop feel­ing bad about that. If you want to become a car­penter instead going to col­lege, go for it. If you want to hike the Appalachi­an trail, do it. If you don’t, stop think­ing about it and move on. If you hate the big city and love liv­ing in the burbs, embrace that. And vice versa. Our anxious­ness comes from stand­ing in the middle of a decision. We know we don’t really want to do some­thing but we feel bad let­ting it go. We’re afraid it says some­thing we don’t like about our iden­tity. But you have to embrace your likes and dis­likes or you will forever drown in choices.

Take small steps. Some­times I actu­ally don’t like brows­ing a book­store because there are so many books, and I can get to feel­ing over­whelmed by it. All of these books to read! I’ll nev­er be able to read them all! It almost makes me not want to start. I just have to tell myself to pick one that looks inter­est­ing and simply start there. As it is in the book­store, so it is in life. Often we feel rest­less and unhappy because there seems like there are so many things out there that we want to take hold of. We want to have adven­tures, and get a dream job and meet our dream girl; we want to learn a craft, read 100 books, and learn how to dress well. We want to live life to fullest! But we put so much pres­sure on attain­ing this ideal that we end up being over­whelmed and para­lyzed into inac­tion. Once you under­stand what cando and what you want do, you can start tak­ing steps toward those things. You have to just choose one thing at a time to tackle. Mak­ing small, steady vic­tor­ies will cure your rest­less­ness. Your mind simply wants to feel as if you are mov­ing for­ward. So make that first step.

At the end of the day, you have to accept that “real life” isn’t some­thing some­where out there hap­pen­ing to oth­er people, it’s what you’re liv­ing right now. This is your life. Start liv­ing it.

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