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The unsustainability of modern life and how COVID-19 may be exposing cracks in our society

'I think the coronavirus is putting into sharp focus the vulnerabilities in the way that modern society is organized,' says Tara Henley, author of 'Lean Out: A Meditation on the Madness of Modern Life'

Shortly before her 40th birthday in 2016, writes Tara Henley in Lean Out: A Meditation on the Madness of Modern Life, she experienced “the day that I broke.” Just months before, Henley—overwhelmed by stress, too much work, loneliness and a lifetime of health issues—had abandoned a flourishing journalism career in Toronto to return to the West Coast of her childhood. But she had found no solace in Vancouver, a city of precarious work opportunities and extreme economic and housing inequality. On that life-changing February day, wracked by the intense chest pains that had begun soon after her return to British Columbia, Henley knew she had to step away from the profession she loved.

It was the start of more than three years of reading, travelling when possible and, above all, talking with others alienated by modern society. They ranged from old friends and random strangers to Scottish rapper Darren McGarvey, Shaka Senghor—who, after being convicted of murder as a teenager, later became a MIT fellow and prominent advocate of American prison reform—and Mark Boyle, Ireland’s famous “moneyless man,” who has lived for more than a decade without that (apparently) basic necessity. Henley grew more and more convinced that her story of stress, financial insecurity and ill health, set against a backdrop of rising inequality, was not her story alone, but in the widest sense “our” story, the narrative arc of contemporary society: “It just happens these things are all related.” Part memoir, part exploration of alternatives to modern life and a search for a sustaining “tribe” of Henley’s own, Lean Out—its title an antithesis to Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg’s celebrated 2013 bestseller about how women can flourish in the current business world—couldn’t have arrived at a more timely moment, as a pandemic highlights the fragility of the global economy.

Q: Did the process of writing Lean Out work out the same way as your self-described “sprinter” life always did—a cycle of adrenalin rushes and crashes? Or have you, to adopt a now familiar phrase, flattened the curve?

A: This book took on a life of its own because so much of it was so unexpected. I never would have imagined that I would be lost in rural Ireland looking for a “moneyless man,” or sitting down in L.A. with Senghor. As a project it was very good to me on all levels. Healthwise, it was a really nice pace to work at over the three and a half years it took and, as it turned out, good for my journalistic career. But it was extraordinary for me in terms of human connection, in the way it shifted my perspective on what humans need.

Tara Henley (Rebecca Blissett)

Writing Lean Out, Henley says, took her places she’d never imagined and shifted her perspective on what humans need (Rebecca Blissett)

Q: Whose story do you believe you are telling, yours or ours?

A: I use my own experience because it was the easiest lens for me to look through. But my hope is that this book is much more about all of us, and how unsustainable the modern world is for so many. I think the moment that we’re in with COVID-19 is demonstrating the same cracks in our society that I was trying to document, all of them coming to the surface in such a dramatic way at this moment. So I really, really hope the book is about us, and not about me.

Q: In Vancouver, a place you found obscene with its stark gap between the one per cent and the rest, you felt raw and defenceless. You did a lot of self-isolating, slept, read, walked in nature. As it turned out, that was pandemic prep, wasn’t it? How does COVID-19 fit into your story, in terms of governmental and social response—what it says about modern society?

A: I think the coronavirus is putting into sharp focus the vulnerabilities in the way that modern society is organized. Precarious work was a really big problem a couple of months ago—right now, it’s an absolutely pressing problem. So I think that COVID-19 is showing us how unsustainable and how insane the way that we are living actually is. My hope is that this crisis will lead to serious changes on that front. In terms of self-isolating, I learned a lot from it. Coming from a West Coast sort of hippie childhood, I was very steeped in self-help without ever knowing it. So my response to my own crisis was to try to find the answers within, to power through in the way our economy and society teaches. What I learned employing all those strategies was that sort of “solution” does not even scratch the surface.

READ: These charts show how our fight to ‘flatten the curve’ is going

Q: How so?

A: I mean it did not scratch the surface of anxiety and despair. It did not do anything to mitigate the massive structural societal forces that I uncovered in the book. It didn’t even do anything in the moment. There were instances of reprieve, but no real comfort for me in any significant way. When I think about people self-isolating now, something that’s helping me get through this crisis in terms of the sort of stamina that it’s requiring of us in the media, is to think about the crisis from a collective communal standpoint, to tie all my actions to the idea of the greater good. We are all in this together, and thinking about it in those terms and acting from that place is the thing that has given me the greatest relief in my life.

Q: That’s when you decided the link between our hectic, hurried lives and income inequality was tight? What is the link?

A: I thought about my situation as sort of my own private thing for a long time, but as it grew and multiplied, I realized other people were dealing with the exact same thing. Pull the thread; it always seems to go back to income inequality. In the newsroom, in many stories, the underlying issue is income inequality. When societies have a big gap between the rich and the poor, which Canada does and does not acknowledge a lot, it impacts absolutely every social measure: mental health; physical health for everyone, even the very wealthy; infant mortality; literacy; domestic violence; murder rates. It impacts everything. So I started to understand that overwork and anxiety, which were the two issues I was dealing with, were related to everything else in society and were related to the huge issue looming in the background.

Q: You also write that the awareness solved “the mystery of my fragile health.”

A: It did, absolutely. It is true that I am sensitive physically, and I don’t have great stamina, but people I knew who did have great stamina were starting to have health problems too. By the end of the book, having looked at all the data, I learned that people like me, who are more sensitive physically for whatever reason, are the canaries in the coal mine here—that this life we live is ultimately unsustainable for everyone.

Q: Lean Out brings to mind some practicalities of modern life that might not be obvious to many­—at least not before the pandemic response brought them to the forefront. One is how, given our working hours and often cramped living spaces, bars and restaurants are crucial to the social lives of people who do not otherwise have spaces to get together. Now those spaces are being closed.

A: Yes, exactly. It’s much the same thing I thought about when I looked into the early retirement movement. I thought they had some fantastic ideas, but one thing I really disagreed with was the idea that we should cut restaurant spending completely. That’s not only impractical in the way you say, but in some ways unkind if you look at the adult population. In the United States, the adult population is somewhere around 50 per cent single now. That’s unprecedented in human history, but Canada is not far behind. We have all these people who are single, who are living alone, mostly in condos, who are working tremendously long hours at their jobs and who are connected to other people who are living exactly the same way. And everything is structured around restaurants and bars. To opt out of that is to opt out of social life. Now that they are closing because of the virus, it’s really difficult to see how people are going to get that human connection that is so, so vital and can’t be substituted online. I interviewed a psychologist the other day about COVID anxiety, and one of the things he suggested is we need deep conversations. If we can’t have them face to face, if we can’t get that sort of comfort, of human face-to-face contact with physical touch, the most sustaining thing we can do is have them on the phone. Again, the pandemic is showing up how our lives are trending anyway.

Q: You apply what a rural Vietnamese doctor told British journalist Johann Hari when he was afflicted with violent food poisoning—that nausea is a message that tells us something deeper is wrong—to your anxiety. Its roots lie in your past, including your bout with cancer in your early 20s. Thinking about it, you realized it came from feeling as though you did not have a tribe of your own. What did you mean?

A: There have been a couple of critical moments in my life. The cancer was very difficult in the weeks after I was out of the hospital and everybody’s lives, friends and family, went back to normal. That was a deeply lonely, disorienting time. And I definitely felt that time—even though I had lots of support right after the diagnosis and treatment—was sort of a failure of the tribe around me. The other moment, of course, was when my father left our family when I was a child. That also felt like a failure of the tribe. They were failures in relation to other people—part of this book was me understanding that the failure of the tribe could only be healed by going back to the tribe. It wasn’t something that self-help tells us can be sorted out within, by finding our peace within. This stuff has to be worked out in relation to other people. I needed to find a tribe and learn to trust again and to extend that into all areas of my life. This was really the biggest thing in the book, and in my life to date.

READ: During the coronavirus, academics have found themselves in a crisis of their work

Q: That seemed to be a real difference between you and Sebastian Junger, whose 2016 book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging argued the roots of PTSD in military vets lay in the transition from unit cohesion to the anomie of contemporary civilian life. He told you that if you’re looking for a tribe, you’re not going to find it, because that would mean ignoring the one already present.

A: No, I came to agree with him very much. I realized in the end that my efforts to build a tribe were just efforts to discover the tribe around me. The cycling group that was so important to me, for example, was all people who were living around me in Vancouver— mostly all in my neighbourhood—who I just wouldn’t have found if I had not become an organizer for the group. The school that I volunteered for was very close to my house— again, part of my community. I just hadn’t had access to it. And going back to the newsroom—that’s absolutely my tribe. But to access it, I had to put myself out, I had to go back. I think that’s what Junger meant when he said the tribe is all around you. What else he’s saying is it can’t be exclusive, but has to include everybody immediately around. That idea is very powerful as well. If we’re just looking for people we agree with or have tons in common with or who are in the same economic background as us, it’s not really going to do it. What we need is a coming together of everybody, a feeling of all of us being in it together.

Ireland’s ‘Moneyless Man’ set out in 2008 on a cash-free 14,000-km trek to Gandhi’s birthplace, but had to turn back after a month (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Ireland’s ‘Moneyless Man’ set out in 2008 on a cash-free 14,000-km trek to Gandhi’s birthplace, but had to turn back after a month (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Q: Even moneyless Mark Boyle, who is an icon of leaning out—indeed, of jumping off the modernity ship (you couldn’t even find him at first)—said to you, “I need a tribe.” You decided the solution to the distemper of our times was far more communal than individual. Did Boyle take a wrong turn just walking off into the woods?

A: I still think his example is incredibly powerful. We need different examples to show us there are so many other ways to live. I have huge respect for him as a writer and a thinker. And I think what he’s doing is incredibly interesting. For Boyle, it might depend on when you visit him. He’s built this free hostel at his place, so if there’s a ton of people there then he has a tribe. But we just caught him at a moment when nobody was there and he had just broken up with his girlfriend, and he was down. But, true, for me it was the moment when I realized that, no, I’m not going to go off into the woods. I like lipstick, I want running water and WiFi. On a fundamental level, I am not built for living alone in the woods. Most of us are not.

Q: Humans, in fact, are a very mixed, two-handed lot. On the one hand, we spent a lot of modern history trying to free ourselves from neighbour-enforced norms and family pressure. That’s one reason so many people are in those small condos—personal autonomy is pretty much the highest value we have. On the other hand, we do want our communal identities and help. You revelled in your brother’s extended family chaos at least partly because it was not yours. Many, many people have fled that sort of situation. It’s like talking about the togetherness of the Blitz, which certainly came at a price.

A: Yeah. The disaster model, which is really the model we’re in right now, isn’t that true? During the Blitz, I’m sure it was not convenient to sleep shoulder-to-shoulder in the shelters. Besides the war itself, there must have been politics down there, dramas and all kinds of stuff happening. But when push comes to shove, you do want to know that the people around you will shelter you and feed you and defend you. I think that need supersedes the need of self-actualization and autonomy and all of the stuff this period in history has drilled into us. I want to know that if I cannot leave my house for two weeks, that someone is going to help me get food.

Q: You raise a really good point there. Humans are so good in a crisis, so altruistic and brave, like the people who run to pull crash victims from their cars while flames lick around them. But in a slow motion disaster, not so much. Climate change, of course is the big one right now—down the road enough to be widely ignored. Is the pandemic something smack in the middle? A feeling of disaster, but little sight of it, at least not here. Weeks of distancing and isolation to prevent worse may prove hard to maintain.

A: And how do we come together when we cannot physically reach out and touch each other? When simple acts like, you know, cooking for someone come with a threat. How do we get past that?

Q: So, the centrality of tribe in human happiness: at one point you seemed to feel its greatest gift was the way it validated its individual members.

A: As individuals not in any way separate from the whole, yes. The centrality of the tribe really has to do with that feeling of collective purpose—not just the comfort of knowing that we will be looked after, but the incredible ability to provide that for others; being part of that reciprocity. We’ve lost so much of that collective care in our self-help culture. I think we’ve lost the idea of reciprocity and the urgency of human connection. We’ve lost a lot. I don’t know how COVID will go, but I wonder if it will bring some of that back.

Q: One aspect of modernity that stands out in Lean Out is when you write that “home” is not much of a concept for young people in the Western world, who are always on the move—moving apartments, moving jobs, moving cities.

A: I have friends all over the globe. Many of the people I care about and talk to are elsewhere, and many of us have that strange, kind of surreal feeling of being from one place but living somewhere else. Pico Iyer talks about it in The Global Soul. There are lots of people on this planet now who relate more to the other wanderers than they do to those they grew up around or to those they’re living closest to at any particular moment. It can seem very privileged—and it is—but there’s often an imperative there that I don’t think gets talked about enough. Many of us have to move. However romanticized, and that kind of rootless life can be, we are following jobs and livelihoods.

Q: Other authors have entitled books Lean Out, as much to capitalize on Sheryl Sandberg’s bestselling Lean In as for any other reason, but you tackle her book directly.

A: That book made me very angry, although it took me a long time to really understand why. I think that in the end, what she was really doing was, again, taking that self-help, individualistic sort of lens, isolating one thing—not being ambitious enough or not taking a seat at the table, not pushing into work enough. That, when, as many have pointed out, we already have very viable solutions. If you want to empower women, give them mat leave. These policy options are in place now. They’re just expensive, so people don’t want to pay for them. It comes back again to economics and to putting people in a difficult and exploitative situation and then giving them the responsibility for changing massive structural conditions with some sort of personal solution. It’s not right. It’s not fair. It’s not useful. It’s not productive. And it’s not going to work. It’s a distraction from the key issues at the heart of all this, of the sort we see all over our culture.

Q: I know you can’t declare that everything is fine now, since what you seek is major social change, but personally speaking, are you feeling better and thinking things are moving forward?

A: I feel hugely, hugely better. What helped me the most is just the change in perspective, which led to new decisions. I did come back to Toronto, and back to the newsroom. I am living right now in a household of friends; there are dogs. When we understand we are dealing with massive structural things, it takes off some of the burden from the individual. I’m not wasting time and energy on solutions that just don’t work. And as a journalist, I feel agency is very important. Now I do feel like I have agency, that I’m contributing to society every day. That is no small thing. During times of crisis, the frontline workers—today the likes of nurses and grocery store clerks—are working harder hours, longer hours. But their stress is mitigated because they know they are contributing in really concrete ways. I feel that the world needs journalists right now, particularly with COVID, to tell its stories. That really, really mitigates a lot of stress.


This article appears in print in the May 2020 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Leaning out.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.

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