The Portland Phoenix

Unpacking the Sausage: There’s wisdom in the burnout

Bre Kidman

I’m finding it challenging to avoid running myself ragged lately.

At first, my return to the social justice workforce in a relatively straightforward role at a scrappy nonprofit sounded like it would be cute and quaint. After managing my own law practice, running a U.S. Senate campaign, and then spending two-and-a-half years doing phone sex on my couch while I recovered from the resulting burnout, I figured the new gig would be a brisk-but-refreshing walk in the park. 

My first weekend, I slept over 35 hours. I chalked it up to transitioning back to working days after years on the night shift. But at the end of my second Tuesday, I collapsed on my couch. I found myself absolutely gobsmacked to realize it’s been a full decade since I was a 25-year-old go-getter. 

It’s easy to say that the world has gotten harder and the times have changed. It’s harder to admit that I’ve changed, too.

To some extent, it’s aging. But the upheaval I’ve experienced in the last year spent managing a particularly difficult flare of chronic illness has also taught me: sometimes the body does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. It’s easy enough to find kindness and grace for others when they are tired and need to slow down or pause. It’s much harder to look in the mirror and accept that I might not be able to function like I did at my peak anymore.

Then again, all the nonsense about “quiet quitting” over the last few years ought to have been a potent reminder to folks who are reading between the lines of the hyper-capitalist propaganda we call news in this country: no one can function at peak capacity all of the time. If we could, there would be no way to distinguish a peak from a plateau — or, heaven forbid, a valley.

If I had to pick a hill to die on, it wouldn’t be the one built on the bones of employees in an economic system which relies on the myth of endless growth. Corporations are legally bound to get the best return on investment for their shareholders. This functionally translates to an entire culture fixated on treating breaking even — or, heaven forbid, a quarter operating at a loss — as failure.

The Venn diagram representing the legal structure of the U.S. and the legislative priorities of corporations who can afford to purchase politicians’ attention is a circle. Our representation in most fields of government is driven by whichever candidate has the most cash at the end of the election game show. The price of representation rises each election cycle, so the politicians’ reliance on corporate buy-in goes up with it. In exchange, our elected officials push policies that make it easier for the corporations to make more money to spend on elections — employee wellness be damned.

This feedback loop has reached an exponential scale. People in power don’t even bother pretending voters get to choose who represents them anymore. Then corporations leverage social media to turn societal discord into profits and the politicians do their best “Who’s on First?” routine about an entire country of people teetering on the edge of a cliff.

My point is: it’s not sustainable. No living being can survive a constant uphill climb without pausing to rest. Call me a filthy hippie communist if you like, but I think it’s unrealistic to expect organizations composed of living beings to do the same. We have to make time to recover. But before that, we have to admit we are living beings who require time to recover. It can be hard to resist the urge to attempt superhuman feats when the world is on fire, but there’s always going to be another fire to fight. No living person or single organization will ever put them all out — and that’s okay. 

I guess my dream is that someday we all collectively accept our humanity, allow ourselves the grace to ebb and flow as nature intended, and scale that approach all the way to the corporate (or national) level. I don’t have much hope of it happening in my lifetime, but I’m working on being okay with that, too. The world might not get better, but I can. In the waning days of late-stage capitalism, it’s not a sprint. It’s not a marathon either. It’s a treadmill. Set your resistance for the long run.   

Bre Kidman is an artist, activist, and attorney (in that order), and the first openly non-binary person in history to run for the U.S. Senate. They would be delighted to hear your thoughts on the political industrial complex at

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