Questioning Exhaustion, Part 1

This is the first of a two-part series that asks, “What does it mean to be exhausted at Amherst College?” There is a tendency for students at elite institutions to scapegoat the heavy academic workload for campus exhaustion. The problem, I insist, is much more complicated.

For many of us, exhaustion is the primary condition of the Amherst experience. It is a feeling that can consume everything, whether eventful or mundane. For many, merely navigating spaces on campus — the dining hall, Frost library, the gym — means exerting herculean mental effort. “Who did I wave to?” becomes “How many times did I wave?” The question “Should I even be in the back room?” changes to assessments of number of times smiles were shared on the way there.

At the curricular level, the excessive discipline necessary to pull off a satisfactory result often causes exhaustion. In fact, the banal acts of completing problem sets, Moodle responses and paper prompts often obscures the matter that they intend to illuminate, and work here can often feel so distant. I remember sitting in an introductory chemistry course during my first year and not fully understanding why I was there. What did Schrodinger’s cat have to do with me? I would never need it for personal growth. At these moments, school felt more concerned with the production of unknown intellectual ends as opposed to the passion associated with the learning process. However, this feeling didn’t matter because I needed the grade. I had to suck it up.

For Amherst’s “diverse” individuals to “survive” in the community, they must internalize everything. We must achieve at all costs for the parents, for the family, for the race. We internalize everything like the cell whose self-regulating mechanisms cease to function. We must do the most. When these cells-now-tumors cannot handle the overconsumption — the overstimulation — they metastasize and exhaust. For this reason, neurological diseases are common here: attention deficit hyperactivity, depression, PTSD and burnout syndrome are widespread.

To do homework I must stay up tonight. I can’t call mom this Saturday because I have a mixer. I can’t hang out with X tomorrow because there is too much work. The conditions for a flourishing “life” at Amherst College — good grades and an active social life — often conflict with the necessities for a wholesome life outside it: physical and mental health, family life and meaningful friendships.

Exhaustion, as noted in its Latin root exhaurire, means to draw out. At the level of the individual, this process breeds alienation. This phenomenon changes the common maxim “Yes we can” to “I can’t breathe.” “I can’t draw out anymore,” we say. “There is literally not enough time in the day. There is never enough.” Breath is extracted; life is extracted for the schedule.

Ta-Nehisi Coates notes in “Between the World and Me”: “I sensed the schools were hiding something, drugging us with false morality so that we would not see.” But what is the subject of this morality? I say that it is excessive discipline. When the workload, the combination of academic and extracurricular commitments (parties included), consumes everything — trapping unmediated thought and leisure in the way that a black hole traps light and stunting curiosity and pursuits outside the predetermined categories of varsity athletics, clubs and club sports, academics and career opportunities — an exhaustion takes root that loosens instead of affirming our connection to the world. The community’s obsession with discipline reveals the secret of Amherst’s collective condition: that our mission statement’s “principled life of consequence” and the “life of exhaustion” are the same.

With that revelation I, again, ask, what is the specific condition of this type of dual exhaustion-alienation? It is hyper-passivity after hyper-activity, unresponsiveness after overstimulation. It is akin to having an open cut that numbs after being exposed to the elements for too long. It is the kind of fatigue that compels us to lash out and then forces us to retreat into silence. At its worst, the condition takes control of the body, possessing any expression of individual will. For many of us at these moments, life can be reduced to the robotic pace of attending class, engaging in small conversations at Val, completing assignments, going to the gym, partying — rinse and repeat. Here, the exhausted life reveals itself as an automated life, absent of narration.

The exhausted life is a sleepless one. Grogginess is the human condition. Reality and dream are indistinguishable. So we cry, “Shut up! I’m very tired and I just want to sleep!” However, for the most troubled this cry becomes the quiet whimper, “I don’t want to wake up.”