Book Review – The Age of Overwhelm

The Age of Overwhelm was not the book I was anticipating. I have a folder into which I put books I place a high value on having read, which I sometimes read books from – setting myself up to regularly review a new book has helped with this somewhat, but there is some backlog, at this point.

I pulled Age of Overwhelm up expecting a book on how our modern age has us constantly (checks her email to see what the new message light is for) breaking our attention to focus on something else demanding we pay our attention to it – facebook messages, discord pings, email. Instead, the book is largely about emotional overwhelm – that state when everything is just too damn much, and you either find some escape, or melt down.

Certainly Age of Overwhelm does an excellent job characterizing the issue – we are provided with example after example of people in overwhelming situations, from the increasing hospitalization of suicidal teenagers, to activists who watch their causes become ever worse as they try to make them better, or even hold steady. One particularly striking example is given from the life of someone dedicated to preventing gun violence. Her son observed a Breaking News feed about a mass shooting, and reported to her, “Mommy, you failed at your job.”

Far less space seems to be given to how to meliorate these issues. We are again shown ways to become overwhelmed, and there are moments where solutions are discussed – taking space, getting exposure to nature, being less attached – but the book focuses so much more heavily on overwhelm and being overwhelmed, that these seem like more of an afterthought than the primary subject matter.

It’s rare to find a self-help book that spends more page space on why you need the help, than on the help. For the first third of the book, I didn’t recall seeing any help – so much so that I decided to actively look for it. While there are sentences and paragraphs describing ways to be less whelmed, on the whole it seems more like a study of the state of affairs, than a text aimed at improving things.

Perhaps the author found the subject matter a bit overwhelming herself – certainly there is a great deal of pain in the world that Laura van Dernoot Lipsky brings us to look at. Having read it, I find myself questioning if it is necessary for us to live in this way.

I’ve always been a strong extropian accelerationist – I think the sooner we get to fully-automated luxury gay space communism, the better. I’m not as convinced we need to be breaking ourselves along the way. Those who’ve known me through my recent personal changes may find this somewhat surprising – I often challenge myself to get more done in a day.

I also try to spend part of every day playing the violin. I game, still, somewhat irregularly – I was until recently active in a D&D campaign. I have a Fallout – A Tale of Two Wastelands save no more than weeks old. While I’ve taken the motto of Boxer to heart (“I will work harder!”) and find myself chanting along with Watsky about the moral of the story (“Work! Work! Work! Work! Work!”) I recognize, on some level, the need to play, to goof off, to relax. To get your chill on.

Age of Overwhelm makes a strong case that, as a society, we’ve lost sight of this vital human need. “We are game-playing, fun-having creatures, we are the otters of the universe.” I think we lose sight of this at our peril, and Age of Overwhelm makes an excellent case that we are imperiled indeed.

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