These days we are much concerned about stress. My father was a civil engineer and he was an expert in concrete structures. Concrete has great compressive strength but not much tensile strength. This means that it can withstand pressure but is not so good at resisting being pulled apart. This is why concrete structures are often reinforced with steel which has the opposite qualities. Steel will tend to bend under pressure, but it has great tensile strength. Thus the two complement each other.
It is interesting to consider this distinction between stress and strain when the terms are transferred to psychology.
We can, perhaps, say that strain is what one experiences when one knows what one is doing and why, but is finding it hard to achieve: something important requires great effort, concentration and endurance. One becomes fatigued, but in a healthy way and one has no doubt about the importance of what one is doing.
Stress is the opposite. It is a consequence of alienation. A person is inwardly conflicted, feels under pressure to do something, but is not confident that it is the right thing to be doing, or the best use of their life. They are doing it for some ulterior motive; perhaps, to get the money to permit themselves to do what they really want to do. Yet, perhaps, even what they think they want to do is still not what they really, really think they should be doing. Thus there is a lot of internal conflict, much of it hidden or repressed. The pressures inside the person build.
We strain to achieve something worthwhile, but we feel stress when we are inwardly compressed, distressed and depressed. Stress is the disease of modern society. Many of us work in large social systems in roles remote from the “goods” that the system is supposed to generate. We often feel cut off from those ultimate benefits and can wonder why we are doing what we are doing. Worse, we can sometimes know that the end product is something that we do not really approve of at all. I spoke with a man who had started his career working for a company that made engines that were used in grass cutting equipment. Many years later he was still in the same job making similar engines but now the motors were being deployed, more profitably for the company, in the construction of torpedoes.
Many of the most profitable activities in our modern economy have no obviously beneficial value to the welfare of humanity. Some oil the wheels of commerce as in insurance, banking and stock market speculation. Careers in these enterprises may be lucrative and in a broad sense they do serve the efficient running of the vast machine that is the modern economy, but working in such a “service” one can easily lose touch with any palpable sense of devoting one’s life to a worthwhile end. We soon all fall into a mentality of basic greed and self-serving, yet deep down live with troubled conscience.
The modern person is educated to continually think about self-benefit and this can seem to be the only meaningful motive for doing anything. It is, however, soul destroying. It erodes the spirit and scatters one’s faith. The consequence is inner conflict at a deep level and this is stress.
Recognising the widespread incidence of this unfortunate condition people have evolved a range of paliative measures to address the symptoms. These range from chemical medication through various forms of indulgent distraction to exercises such as utilitarian mindfulness. Moderating symptoms is all very well, but it is not much of an answer if the more fundamental causes are not tackled.
We live in an amazingly complex society. We are, in one way, the most privileged humans to have walked the Earth. Yet, in the process of building this wonderful economic structure, we have somehow built in some quite severe problems. Many people live anomic, alienated, sanitised lives dedicated to nothing more meaningful than a few opportunities for personal self-indulgence. At the same time, we all know now that we are progressively destroying the natural systems that we are so effectively exploiting, upon which this great structure rests. It is no wonder that there is a deep seated sense of unease, nor that this manifests at the individual level in stress.
Perhaps, however, this is all soon going to change. Consciousness of the severity of the ecological crisis is only gradually penetrating the collective consciousness, but it seems now inevitable that its signs are going to impact progressively more and more dramatically. This is going to pose humanity as a whole with a great challenge.
I am today staying in a very comfortable house in what superficially seems like a highly civilised environment such as one might see pictures of in Ideal Home magazine, yet my host has just been telling me about how, not long ago, a hurricane, such as used to be unknown in these parts, ripped half the roof off and driving rain swept into the heart of of the building, completely wrecking the appearance of calm, comfort and control. This specific and local account of the encounter between our blandly cheerful existence and the kickback of nature seems somehow symbolic of the whole human situation in the present day.
We are, in a sense, in the third era of history. First we were hunter-gatherers. We were not numerous and did not really make that much impression on our environment. Then we entered, for better or for worse, upon the agricultural age, which lasted a few thousand years. People adopted settled lifestyles, fought for territory and built hierarchical societies. Then, not much more that a century and a half ago, we started to move into the technological age. It is early days. It is too soon to say whether this will prove to have been a great step forward or a disaster. In its early stages it has brought some wonderful benefits, but it has also resulted in a huge increase in population and in ecological degradation. Are we like happy aphids eating a rose bush and killing it in the process? Aphids usually can find another bush to fly to, but we seem to be somewhat isolated in the cosmos. If we destroy planet Earth, there is no obvious place to go. The gradually growing awareness of this self-made plight is sapping our confidence in our new bounty and adding to the sense of stress. Will awareness of the challenge be enough to galvanise us into the collective effort that may be needed to surmount it? Will we switch from stress to the strain of striving to survive in the face of powers stronger than ourselves? Is our failure to face up to this situation so far the root cause of the stress epidemic, as we realise deep down that we are all complicit, through our insatiable greed, in creating the conditions for what may prove to be a great disaster. The question hangs in the air.
It is difficult to change. Generally people only change when it is forced upon them. There will be difficult times. In such times it is doubly important that there are groups that preserve sound values, compassion and wisdom. We must accept what comes, but in as constructive a manner as possible. This takes a lot of faith. It is relatively easy to be constructive and positive when one sees quick results, but when the bigger picture starts to turn adverse it becomes a lot more testing. Namo Amida Bu.