Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Stress test

A couple people responded to yesterday's post about the spiritual significance of stress, and I wanted to clarify my position.

Kenny pointed out that it would be pointless and irrational to get stressed out about things that were beyond your control, and that in fact our real stress comes from not controlling the things we could have but didn't:
If God stepped down and said "Here is an hour-and-a-half's worth of work. I want
you to do it in the next hour," you would not necessarily freak out about it. You would simply say, "That's impossible." Our real fear is that we have been given 45 minutes of work to do in the next hour, and we're not going to make it. That we could have made it if we worked harder, but we just didn't give it our all.

Some stress certainly does come from failing to live up to one's true capacity. That's the point at which stress takes on a moral dimension: I should have done it, but I didn't. In such situations, you not only fail, but you also take the rap for it.

Not all stress is like that, though. It is also possible that you are doing everything right, morally speaking, but that you are still on a course with failure. In fact, I am leaning towards that as my definition of stress: "Stress is the anticipation of failure." Whether it's your fault or not, stress is the result of recognizing the real possibility, or inevitability, of a significant failure.

We still have a lot to unpack from that definition. What's "significant"? What's "failure"? We can only get stressed out about the things that we care about. A significant failure is when we fail to come through for something we care about. So you have to evaluate the things that you care about, and decide if they are worth caring about, in terms of their ultimate value and importance. I'm sure that a lot of stress comes from neuroticism: caring about things that aren't worth caring about.

"Failure" is a judgement that is inextricably tied up in our expectations, and the expectations of others. That makes it somewhat squishy and maleable. Lots of self-help gurus would reduce your stress merely by fiddling with the definition of failure: "Don't see it as a failure. See it as a good experiment. See it as a learning experience." Or, they would caution you to reevaluate your expectations and set reasonable goals: "If you're constantly failing, you're trying to do too much." This, also, is good (as far as it goes) to eliminating the unnecessary or unhelpful stress in your life.

But of course we can't always control these things. We don't always get to choose the things we care about, nor are our obligations neatly packaged in a reasonable, achievable project plan. Our most important cares are the open-ended ones, the ones that make infinite demands: our children, our fellow man, and our God. If we can't raise enough food to feed our families and our children starve, that's failure, no matter how you slice it. And that, of course, is why we are doomed to failure, since we are programmed to want nothing but life and order, and destined to end in death and entropy. That also defines the miracle of grace, the call to embrace the stress anyway. Our caring is called to exceed its proper bounds.

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