Burnout in Children's Literature

June 6th, 2013

I read Ender’s Game back in high school and so when I saw the trailer for the upcoming Ender’s Game Movie (with Harrison Ford) I decided I should read it again.

During my second reading (actually, this time it was an Audible.com version, so “reading”) I noticed a few things.

First off, the book is quite fantastic. I forgot how good of a book it was and I really enjoyed it the second time through. It was very well written.

My only criticism is that it feels a little long and the story is dragged out in a few spots, but overall it was great.

The thing that really got to me though was how much this reminded me of The Hunger Games. Allow me to clarify.

Both Ender’s Game and The Hunger Games are stories where children and teenagers are required to take on more responsibility than they might typically have to. This allows for some character growth and creates a strong main character to come out on the other side. But the characters in these books are not just challenged, they are thrust to the edge of what they can bear.

Ultimately, both Andrew (Ender) Wiggins and Katniss Everdeen struggle with severe cases of burnout. They put so much into their survival that they reach a state of exhaustion where their bodies physically begin to shut down and mentally begin to turn to apathy. They are emotionally crippled, and can do nothing but just exist.

I don’t think either of these authors originally intended to explore burnout and warn against it in children, or even to allegorically talk about burnout in adults. Yet, they both do an good job of portraying the despair and futility in the mind of those who have been pushed too far.

There are a lot of other parallels within the two books, though I hesitate to read too much into a perceived intention when it is not necessarily there. Ultimately, I believe these stories are to entertain. Though, we would be silly people indeed if we did not learn from the stories we hear.

There certainly may be times in life where pushing yourself to beyond your limits is a necessity for survival, but without proper care and consideration you can very easily loose the things which make you, YOU.

Most of us probably aren’t going to be in situations where we loose all pleasure in the world around us and walk around in an unhappy trance. Hopefully, it’ll never get that bad. At the same time, there are smaller levels of apathy which can be reached by being overworked.

Downtime is not only important, but it’s vital for keeping a healthy attitude and mind. Burnout is not only caused by over-marathons of mental or physical labor. Just having too many things on your plate can cause a mental level of burnout. Simply knowing that there are more tasks out there waiting for your next spare second can be as daunting as trying to not die in the wilderness. Granted, it’s less life threatening, but it’s still a mental drain leading toward apathy.

In a sense, these characters are tragic heros and heroines. They give themselves entirely toward a cause and have little left when they are done. It’s admirable, in a way, and almost a warning in another:

You are capable of great things. You can change the world if you want. It might not be easy. It might not be quick. It may cost you dearly. So that’s the question. What’s your goal? What’s your end result? Who is it for? Is it worth it?

I don’t like the idea of ending this on a negative note. Those italicized questions were not meant to be a downer. Think of it in this light:

Make sure the things you do are worth it. Don’t fight your battles over little things. Save your strength for the things that matter. Trim the fat. In the words of Jonathan Coulton:

So enjoy yourself, do the things that matter
Cause there isn’t time and space to do it all
Love the things you try, drink a cocktail, wear a tie
Show a little grace if you should fall

Don’t live another day unless you make it count
There’s someone else that you’re supposed to be
Something deep inside of you that still wants out
And shame on you if you don’t set it free

– A Talk with George