The American memoryscape of the 20th century is littered with slogans and catch phrases. From politicians and activists and Madison Avenue they came: “Make Love Not War,” “Live and Let Live,” “Think Globally, Act Locally,” “Just Say No,”“It’s the Real Thing,” “Just Do It,” “Think Different.” Regardless of source or objective, each in its own way reflected some ethos about the moment from which it arose, and to some extent, each communicated an underlying communal value of some sort.
Perhaps we are due a new slogan, one that might help us understand something important about “now.” Based on what I’ve heard, read, observed, and experienced over the last decade or so, I’m offering the following for our consideration: “It’s A Lot.”
Compared to the earnest and muscular slogans of the past century, “It’s A Lot” seems at first glance more like mewling bit of nothing, albeit a mewling bit of nothing I hear or observe being regularly mewled. It’s on-brand for our times though, as we’ve adopted a sort of cultural shorthand in our communications that obviates the need for considered prose, complete thoughts, or articulation of feelings. Who needs any of those when there are emojis and memes to “say it for us,” despite the erosion on our ability to have or do these important human things that is, unfortunately, the byproduct of their continued use?
“It’s A Lot” actually says a bunch of other stuff about us too: about our psychological vulnerability to being “overwhelmed,” about the way our universal, free floating, internal angst attaches to external events, about our seeming compulsion as Americans to be or appear “busy” as a validation of our industry or importance. These inner experiences account for the valence we seem to have developed for external stimuli; as in chemistry and physics, our valence determines how readily a bond will be made with another element based on corresponding deficits and contributions. Over the last ten to fifteen years, technology has fundamentally altered the how we live, work, interact with others and experience ourselves. Technology is a monolithic feeder from “without” seemingly possessed of knowledge of where-all we are vulnerable, and the valence we’ve had for it based on what’s “within” has us washed up and gasping on the beach, croaking “It’s A Lot.”
What are we really saying when we say “It’s A Lot?”
As a clinician, I understand that statement as way to express a shortfall of affective or attentional resources available to manage perceived demand on these capacities. In other words, there’s more “coming at us” than we can reasonably handle from a psychological perspective, and it’s because we’ve not yet fully evolved the tools and strategies that might shield us from the perpetual bombardment that batters our “bandwidth,” i.e., our affective and attentional resources. And my choice of “evolved” was very intentional. I do believe we are transitioning through a critical period in our evolution as a species, in which the “fittest”—as in, the most adaptable among us--will survive the novel sorts of threats to well-being this and future millennia will pose while others, by way of overdoses, suicide, road kill, and other means of physical and spiritual bankruptcy, will be its casualties.
Americans have been setting themselves up for this since our founding. Our attachment to industriousness—to living to work rather than working to live—distinguishes us from our more chill European forebears. The equation of “hard work” to “moral good” was the yield of the Quakers, Shakers, and market makers, sustained by tenacious faith in our right to upward mobility regardless of status at birth, and supervised by ubiquitous Judeo-Christian traditions, which upheld that even That Guy worked a full six days a week, and this was “Good.” “Good” people work hard and are “busy.” Idle hands are the “devil’s workshop,” implying down-time is fraught with moral peril. Who’d ever admit to not being busy?
As a result, “being busy” is the great American calling card, a signal that one matters to people and processes and the shaping of events. More recently, it’s also become the most common “out” for a person’s failure to follow through on things to which they have committed or know to be important, but since on its face it manifests a profound socio-cultural value, it's uncontestable. Our collective inauthenticity on this score perpetuates the notion that there is virtue in being oversubscribed, tapped, and handling A Lot.
While this bit of cultural history runs in the background, a newer phenomenon is playing out in the foreground: being “overwhelmed.” Often breathlessly, tearfully, “overwhelmed.” What is the deal with this? Growing up, I probably felt this way some of the time, but there was no fainting couch authorized to me upon which I could collapse. I did not hear adults talking about being “overwhelmed” or kids in school getting psychological hall passes for their inability to execute. If you couldn’t hack it, the system penalized you and no one gave a damn about your feelings.
Admittedly, as I write that: maybe not a perfect system, but…
This psychological frailty is a whole ‘nother animal. Increased vulnerability to being so “overwhelmed” is super obvi among Millennials and Gen Z, but it seems to have also hijacked Gen X-ers --who socialized Millennials and Gen Z to think they could not manage bad feelings, challenging demands, or the cold-heartedness of American meritocracy--and now seemingly everyone from eight to fifty-eight is onboard this bus. It is unfortunate that the “latch-key kid” cohort—the loosely-supervised-in-childhood X-ers—swaddled their own kids in anti-bacterial wipes and participation awards and the avoidance of all hurt feelings, thus depriving them of opportunities to foster resilience and resourcefulness…….and then went on to drink their own Anxiety-Ade, diluting any residual fortitude cultivated in their free-range childhoods.
On the wider cultural stage, it is also unfortunate that protecting people from ideas that might upset them—in the form of widespread “trigger warning” practices in school, universities, workplaces, and information platforms, and other selective censoring by the media—reinforce the idea that we can’t be expected to manage our feelings. If bad feelings arise, someone or something else is to blame. This impulse has been allowed to run recklessly rampant, and when our collective energies are devoted to sourcing blame, every “external” circumstance, event, concept, or the Mere Existence of a Person We Find Objectionable is a potential match struck and tossed in to our waiting puddle of corrosive angst.
This vulnerability is unsustainable when, unlike any other time in human history, The World is coming for us digitally. We used to have more space, more time, more air. It used to be that participation in The World happened on a selective basis: one had to wait until 5 or 6 or 10 PM for a half hour of TV news on one of three or four networks, and then we watched it, we weren’t surrounded by smug and condescending cable news personalities telling us how to feel about everything we were seeing and/or to which version of reality should we subscribe. With such space, one’s “own opinion” could be formed, and there was no obligation to share it on a platform, inviting hurled tomatoes and invective. There was no voice mail dispensing Follow Up requirements in our lap, no Rage Texts to be destabilized by while we’re just minding our own business, no need to take Selfies, or curate a public presence requiring frequent and clever maintenance, or update the status of one’s employment, health, marital satisfaction, or knitting projects. In these and so many other ways, there was a de factor “filter” on what got through, and what was required of us.
Now the default setting for the hurtling of The World into our face 24-7-365 is “Opt In.”
Our Smartphones’—which accompany us from room to room even in our own homes as we go about our Attention Deficit-ed Day--faces light up with notifications, alerting us to breaking news, opinions, bids to group chat, photos of friends’ pets and their nicer vacations, home renovations, new cars, boats, prom dresses, kids’ diplomas, outdoor grills, and more posh restaurant experiences than you can afford, videos demonstrating how to remove corn from the cob or program an inscrutable built-in Miele espresso maker, or someone’s more talented family doing a coordinated line dance at a wedding, and notices that Others Have Replied to Your Comments. These persistent demands on our attention keep our emotions riled and us swamped in indignation, anxiety, hopelessness, insecurity, helplessness, rage, frustration, and FOMO. When EVERYONE’s business is YOUR business—and you’re also obliged to regularly make your business theirs, lest you cease to exist in the ecosystem of the World Wide Web--it’s a recipe for a big baked batch of A Lot we’d do well to cease snacking on so frequently.
If you agree that living like this is unsustainable, here are a few ideas to help you “course correct:”
Reduce the amount of World coming for you every day.
The typical advice to “limit screen time” is insufficient. It’s less about how much time you spend on the information superhighway in aggregate, and more about which element/s of the inbound traffic leave you a wreck upon collision. Consider what you attend to that activates and/or takes you off task with the compulsive need to review or respond to something that surely does not need to be done Now. You might need to dig deep to identify what actually is URGENT, as the perpetual electronic clamor for our attention has subverted our ability to appraise that which does and does not require our involvement in the near term.
Once you’ve got that sorted, set your Notifications accordingly. Do you really need a notice every time one of the people you follow on Twitter tweets, or there’s more Breaking News from the White House, or that there’s a Best in Bags Posh Party About to Start, or that you received a phone call from an unknown number? The idea here is to block stuff from coming at you, and reclaim the power to “go to” the noise selectively when and IF you choose to. And technically you could just ignore more stuff. The News does not care if you are watching it, really.
In addition to creating tangible barricades to TMI, we want to diffuse the impact Externals you choose to participate in have on your Internals. There is choice involved in allowing yourself to be swamped in indignation, anxiety, hopelessness, insecurity, helplessness, rage, frustration, and FOMO, even if it may not feel like it. In addition to the interventions described in the paragraph to follow, cultivate an imagined layer of protection between yourself and everything else. The Earth, for example, has a sexy one of these—called the stratosphere—that keeps us from getting frittered by the Sun. Picture one of those wrapped around you, deflecting unnecessary bids upon your emotional valence like g-dam kryptonite.
Stop using “overwhelmed” to describe yourself or others.
If you wrap yourself up in the idea that you’re “overwhelmed,” guess what? You will be. So instead of being or claiming “overwhelmed” status, try these instead:
Train your body to calm down.
Whenever we get caught up in anxiety or upset-ness of any sort, it’s not just “in our head.” Anxiety triggers the fear center of our brain, which prompts the release of cortisol and adrenaline, which in turn yield specific responses from the sympathetic nervous system, accounting for things like increased heart rate and blood pressure, tension in the neck/shoulders/chest or elsewhere in the body, jitteriness, nausea, dry mouth, flushing, and/or the inability to sleep. Cultivate your awareness of where in YOUR body you feel escalating anxiety, and address the somatic symptoms you’re experiencing first
Train your brain to redirect your thoughts.
Once the body is calm, you can make better sense of your thoughts (and in fact, unless your body is calm, the prognosis for being able to do so is poor), because some or most of your upset-ness may indeed be just “in your head.” Observe what you are telling yourself about your situation, about how “it’s A Lot!!” and how ill-equipped you are to traffic therein, and question this misinformation. In therapy, one of the big “reveals” for people is their increased awareness of how much of their own distress is coming from inside the house—as in, is the result of their own distorted beliefs and automatic thoughts that go unchallenged, and these need to be dismantled and reconstructed with more useful inner narratives.
Stop being so frickin’ busy, and/or saying you are when you’re not really.
One interesting bit of fallout from the pandemic was that it revealed how being “unbusy” more of the time was not the anathema we might have thought. It was kinda nice not to have to DO stuff, like spend time with family (if your family sort of sucks), sit in traffic, shop in stores, find parking places, have routine checkups that are boring and/or unpleasant in some way, go to networking events, travel to some crappy mid-size Midwestern city in February to visit clients, or be in someone’s wedding that you realize you haven’t actually liked since around Sophomore year of college.
While pandemic lockdown was perhaps a “bridge too far” in the opposite direction--leaving scores of people lonely, bored, progressively more addicted to weed or booze or video games or Netflix, or suicidal, so net-net, a super bad scene we shouldn't require in order to relinquish our big pile of A Lot, but we emerge from that experience with a nugget of wisdom all the same. Rethink what you really want to do--and get good at saying “I’m not available that weekend, but thank you for the lovely invite!”—and just do THAT.
Finally, stop reflexively saying “Busy!” every time someone asks you how you are. Think about how you are, and say something authentic, thus normalizing for others that they too might be allowed to be something other than “busy.”
Consider that maybe it’s not A Lot. Maybe it’s Not Enough.
It’s possible that we get so lost in how “It’s A Lot” that we’re failing to see we’re actually trafficking in scarcity rather than surfeit. There may be no shortage of noise, but we lack music. Meaning, that when our emotional bandwidth gets taxed and shriveled by so much bullshit, we lack the imagination, energy, and time for things that bring a sense of joy or purpose. Engagement in things that yield contentment, joy, or feel in some way meaningful, deserve more space on the calendar. Sadly, though, we give so little thought to this dimension of our existence—perhaps because we’re not reminded with a Push Notification to so attend—that it may be a journey in itself deciding what that might be for you. You might not actually know. But if you are beginning such a journey, I leave you with one last thought: as you question what might bring you joy, please don’t Google it.