Thinking “Stress Can Kill You” Can Kill You

Kelly McGonigal explains:

__________

At the end of this YouTube TED talk, in interview with the host, McGonigal offers two take-away recommendations:

  • pursue meaning in your life, not the avoidance of stress; and
  • trust yourself to cope with the stress that comes (rather than arrange your life so that stress is minimized).

I recall seeing once a motivational poster in a corporate office building with an image of a ship heading out to sea and captioned with something like the following: “You can keep your ship in port, but that’s not what ships are made for.” Cheesy, but wise nonetheless.

Maybe “yoga and meditation retreating” from the arena of stress, if done too much, is not a wise route to wellness, mental or physical. And maybe arranging your life in a way that makes everything predictable and safe is not such a great idea either. Hmm.

I guess the bottom line is: don’t be an avoidant person. Face your fears. Be courageous. Don’t be a Buddha hiding in your shell of calm in some monastery, a being in stillness. Instead, be a Roman in the arena, a being in action.

Easier said than done. And obviously balance is needed, but I think Jean-Paul Sartre would have liked this. It’s from Carlin Barton’s Roman Honor: The Fire in the Bones (pg. 32, UC Press 2001):

As the art historian Bettina Bergmann points out, the Romans had a taste for moments of high tension, frozen instants of “explosive emotions,” “excruciating suspended animation,” “moments of decision”: Medea contemplating her children with a dagger in her lap; the sacrificial bull poised to receive the blow of the ax; the wounded gladiator anticipating the death blow; Phaedra clasping her letter to Hippolytus; Helen resisting the blandishments of Paris. Because of their desire to find and express the “truth” of their being in action, the Romans were eager to interpret any and every confrontation as an ordeal, an opportunity for the exercise of will.

But there were, in the Roman mind, good contests and bad ones. A good contest obeyed restrictions: it needed to be a) framed and circumscribed within implicit or explicit boundaries accepted by the competitors, b) between relative equals, c) witnessed, and d) strenuous. The context between Mucius and Porsena was a hard but good one. Porsena was the enemy, but, in Livy’s mind, he and Mucius were playing by the same rules. The Etruscan chieftain could recognize Mucius’s gesture and appreciate the courage that it took. Overwhelmed with admiration for Mucius’s act, and for what it told of the Roman spirit, King Porsena freed his mutilated captive, raised the siege, and sought an alliance with the Romans.

High tension and courage in the arena. A good show. The body and mind pulped and burnt to a crisp in life’s combat, but well used. That was the Roman way–and it was Nietzsche’s. Don’t be a wussy. Recent psychological research supports this philosophical path through the world. Do you have the moxie to adopt it?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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One Response to Thinking “Stress Can Kill You” Can Kill You

  1. Staffan says:

    The lack of meaning in a modern world creates a lot of stress. I vaguely recall a book on the history of psychiatry (Edward Shorter I think) that claimed people who had lived through WW1 and WW2 had better mental health than early adults today. Veterans today seem very frail. I think the globalization weakens people’s patriotism and the sense of purpose that a national identity brings. Employers love to do workshops and team-building exercises to conceal the harsh reality that their workplace is just a group of strangers competing against each other. At the root of this problem is capitalism – everyone for himself. Advice on how to cope with this stress is a lot like giving advice on how to live with an abusive partner.

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