Schaffner argues that while today’s world might seem particularly stressful or pressured, we have felt exhausted throughout history. The introduction lays out some of the key questions she considers in the book:
There is no doubt that the specter of exhaustion shapes both public debates and lived experience in the early twenty-first century, chiming eerily with our weary zeitgeist. Is not ours the most exhausted age in history? And does the current epidemic of exhaustion not threaten the very future of the human animal? There are many who believe this to be the case.9 Yet before simply assenting to this assessment of our times, there is another question that needs to be asked: What do we really mean when we speak of exhaustion? In spite of the ubiquity and the metaphorical potency of the term, and its many applications in medical, psychological, economic, and political debates, exhaustion is a slippery concept, one that borders on, and often overlaps with, various others. How can we define exhaustion, and how can we demarcate it from related ideas and diagnoses? Is exhaustion a state that we can quantify scientifically, or is it a wholly subjective experience? Is it primarily a physical or a mental condition? Is it predominantly an individual or a wider sociocultural experience? Is it really the bane of our age, something that is intimately bound up with modernity and its discontents, or have other historical periods also seen themselves as the most exhausted?
Schaffner also examines the central contradiction that makes exhaustion so central and difficult to avoid both as a state and a concept, particularly in today’s world:
Finally, exhaustion is bound up with two contradictory desires: the concept chimes with us because, on the one hand, we all long for rest and the permanent cessation of exertion and struggle. A part of us wishes to return to an earthly paradise, from which work is banished—a state that resembles childhood, in which we are relieved of all responsibilities, and where everything revolves around pleasure. Yet, on the other hand, work is crucial not only for our survival but also for the shaping of our identity. It is bound up with self-realization and autonomy. In our age, moreover, work is particularly overdetermined: boundaries between public and private selves, between work and leisure, and profession and calling, are becoming ever more blurred.