Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task. ~William James

Friday, August 13, 2010

Stress Contests--Our Real National Pastime?

Someone close to me, who shall remain nameless (though he/she knows who he/she is), is wont to begin the morning with a recitation of his/her "back-to-back" meetings scheduled for the day and the work with which he/she is "swamped," and descriptions of the thin wire on which he/she is balancing and how high off the ground it is.  And he/she is not the only one.  A significant portion of my Facebook friends show the same predilection.  Ditto many of those involved with the nonprofit community organization I work and volunteer with.  And I have to admit that I, too, am sometimes guilty of participating in this discourse of distress.  

The individual who caused me to think about this this morning denies that he/she is up to any competitive busy-ness/indispensability comparison.  And maybe he/she is not.  But I know the response these kinds of rundowns provoke in me.  I experience them as one-upsmanship, as the bragging rights that go with high-powered, and stressful, overachieving.   As in, "I'm so busy/important/vital to the world, I don't even have time to eat/go to the bathroom/sleep/sit down/talk to you."

Oh sure, it may start out as complaint, a little ventilating when we feel particularly squeezed.  But then we become aware, at some subliminal level, of all the brownie points accruing for our hard work, our value, and our basic goodness.  And then, instead of doing anything to prevent these crunch times from becoming habitual, we are off and running, piling on assignments and commitments, saying yes when we want to say no, with the perc of  being registered for this ongoing race of rats.  

Why would we want to be crowned King or Queen of stress?  Do we expect others to feel sorry for us?  To let us off the hooks of everyday, humdrum chores, like dishes and picking up after ourselves?  Do we imagine that this is the path to sainthood?  

I think this sort of dressing ourselves up in auras of overextension represents a dark side of our cultural preoccupation with productivity, excellence and achievement--and even with service, which is to my mind more socially valuable.  It is as if we require ourselves, and each other, to pay for success and accomplishment with self-immolation.  It is perhaps an aspect of what Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb were writing about all those years ago in The Hidden Injuries of Class, a penance required of the more fortunate.  And the behavior has percolated throughout our society, as teens speak of their hours of homework, manual laborers of their overtime, mothers of their sleepless nights.  

We may give lip service to working smarter, but in truth, don't we secretly resent those who make it to the top of the charts without breaking a sweat?  

Well, I, for one, am announcing my resignation from this fray.  I am going to try to catch myself before launching into a tiring, and tiresome account of all my difficulties and entanglements, and to see it for the martyrdom it is.  "Look at me!  I'm so self-less/knee-jerk/unimaginative/slavish/dumb, I can't say no and I therefore agree to spend my days in misery, without rest or pleasure."

I challenge others to do the same.  But not to make an Olympic event of it. 

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