Chicken Noodle Soup for the Millennial Activist Burnout

Categories: Activism
03/25/2019
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My mother’s chicken noodle soup is good. It’s a simple dish, mild but fragrant, cooked with care. I know when I wake up late on a Saturday after a long week that it will more than likely be ready in the kitchen.

“I made soup,” my mother says.

“I know,” I reply.

I know  I should eat the chicken noodle soup. There are lots of things compelling me, practically begging me, to just eat the soup. I’m exhausted. I need to eat. I need to talk to my mother. It’s what I’ve been looking forward to all week.

It doesn’t seem like it should be a difficult choice, but more often that not it is. It mentally becomes one more thing on a never-ending to-do list. I feel lazy and guilty for even considering not doing it, but how could I possibly just sit idle for longer than a second? Chicken noodle soup has no end goal, so it’s difficult for me to understand why it’s worthwhile when I think everything needs to have a purpose or a set of measurable steps to follow.

Chicken noodle soup has no end goal, so it’s difficult for me to understand why it’s worthwhile when I think everything needs to have a purpose or a set of measurable steps to follow.

Of course, this isn’t really about chicken noodle soup. You could substitute in anything I, and maybe you, are supposed to enjoy, but for some reason can’t. Television, the new Stephen King novel, cooking brunch with my friends—it all feels anxiety inducing, not stress relieving, more like a tedious project for class than a leisure activity.

I know I’m not alone in this feeling, because I discovered it has a name: burnout. Burnout is exhaustion beyond the point of exhaustion. It’s forcing oneself past that breaking point where fatigue steps in, when it becomes tiring to do things that seem fun or necessary. For millennials, it’s particularly problematic, because it doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon—it seems to be inherent to the experience of being part of this generation. I read about it in a Buzzfeed article by Anne Helen Petersen, where she analyzes millennial burnout from a micro and macro perspective.

That article hit home, but it really rang true—and frightened me, to an extent—when I thought about what millennial burnout means for young activists. I’m not a professional by any means, but I do define myself as an advocate for change, and that means my millennial burnout is taken to an extreme because it inherently involves other people. I am consumed by the flattening of enjoyable advocacy work, but I often feel powerless to stop that feeling.

My strength comes from empowering others, but what if I can’t empower myself to get off the couch? What does it mean to be a champion for others, when I can’t champion myself? How do I motivate others to come together for a shared cause, if I can barely motivate myself to eat with my own mother once a week?

My strength comes from empowering others, but what if I can’t empower myself to get off the couch?

Over the past few weeks, I’ve foregone a bit of self-care so I can dive head-first into the work I love. At a certain point last week I had to stop and take a minute to ask myself why I felt I couldn’t take a break from my ever-growing to-do list. Things could wait one minute, right? And if they could wait one minute, why not five? And why not ten after that? And maybe a half-hour, even?

Accepting I have millennial activist burnout hasn’t been easy, and trying to treat it by sitting idly for periods of time has been even harder. But it’s worth it. I had chicken noodle soup with my mother this past Saturday, and being able to take a deep breath and eat some home-cooked love was worth it, even if there was no end goal.

Not everything has to end in the perfect campaign or the perfect job or even the perfect meal—sometimes, a bowl of chicken noodle soup is just that, and you have to live with it.

Serena Saunders is a junior at the University of Maryland, majoring in public policy and minoring in history. She wears many hats, but her favorite is empowerer. She is passionate about how young people, especially women and people of color, can become more engaged in the processes that shape their lives.