Getting Stronger: Discussion Forum

Discussion Topics => Philosophy => Topic started by: Jbird on March 03, 2010, 08:07:15 PM

Title: Positive aspects of stress
Post by: Jbird on March 03, 2010, 08:07:15 PM
I, too, have been thinking about the mistaken notion that making our lives as stress-free as possible is somehow optimal. Stress-free can also be meaning-free, fulfillment-free, purpose-free, love-free. Eliminating stress takes away a sense of challenge, and the opportunity to meet the challenge. Even to triumph! Recent example: I'm a finalist for a job I didn't apply for. I'm a freelancer and happy with my flexible lifestyle, but the job is with a client's firm, so when my client submitted me as a candidate for a full-time opening, it seemed like a good idea to go with the flow. Had some phone interviews that went well but was then presented with a test assignment that was nothing I had any experience doing and would be very time consuming. I panicked and didn't want to deal with it and asked a friend/mentor for advice. She said, "bow out gracefully." Instead of taking that as permission to get rid of the stress, I surprised myself by feeling I wanted to rise to the challenge. I threw myself into it and actually felt excited. I was learning new things, developing new skills, having FUN! I haven't had any feedback on what I submitted but tomorrow I'm having the final interview. I don't know if I'll be offered the job, and if I am offered it, I don't know if I'll accept it. But whatever the outcome, it won't feel like I wasted my time in doing the test assignment. What I was asked to do could very well be part of a job description in the future for either freelance or full-time work. More importantly, by accepting rather than avoiding a stressor, I feel stronger, more confident and accomplished than before.
Title: Re: Positive aspects of stress
Post by: Todd Becker on March 04, 2010, 11:14:49 AM
What a great attitude you have about this challenge, Jaye!  Regardless of how things turn out, you pushed yourself beyond your comfort zone and it changed your perspective. Let us know how things turn out.
Title: Re: Positive aspects of stress
Post by: JC on March 24, 2010, 06:27:36 PM
I, too, have been thinking about the mistaken notion that making our lives as stress-free as possible is somehow optimal. Stress-free can also be meaning-free, fulfillment-free, purpose-free, love-free. Eliminating stress takes away a sense of challenge, and the opportunity to meet the challenge. Even to triumph!

Jaye, I definitely agree with you about this. Where did we ever get the idea that stress-free is good? Sure, stress can be unpleasant at times, but look at our parents and grandparents.  They dealt with stress, and rarely if ever complained about it. I think about all of evolution, and it has essentially been about organisms responding to environmental stress and overcoming. And even from the personal point of view, as you say, stress gives meaning to life.  I think that this was understood in previous generations, mainly because there was rarely any alternative, unless you were very rich or privileged, and it is only in recent times that we have been spoiled with the notion that stress is bad for your mental health.
Title: Re: Positive aspects of stress
Post by: Jbird on March 28, 2010, 07:32:00 PM
JC, I like the way you point to previous generations and how they coped with stress. Did they even use the word? It was life, and they didn't expect it to be easy. I recently spent time with relatives on the other side of the world, a branch of the family tree I only learned of three years ago. The oldest fled Poland alone during the Holocaust, when he was only 20, staying one step ahead of death as he made his way through Russia, Japan, and China before settling in Melbourne, Australia. He wrote an autobiography in which he recounts one harrowing episode after another. The tone isn't one of self-pity at being dealt so much misfortune but of pride in his being able to endure his hardship and lend his strength to others. He didn't just survive the numerous stressful episodes of his younger life, but developed into a man who was courageous, resourceful, and wise beyond his years--a leader in whom other emigrees, in cities where he found temporary refuge, placed their trust. He went on to found a successful business; marry and raise talented children; resume his aborted studies and obtain a Masters degree--and in his late 80s he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Melbourne. His is but one example, and an extreme one. Even my own, American-born family members struggled in ways unknown to my generation. They didn't necessarily manage stress as well as they might have, but they accepted that life is challenging--and you're right, I don't remember them complaining about it.
Title: Re: Positive aspects of stress
Post by: JC on April 05, 2010, 09:36:38 PM
Jaye, your Polish relative who emigrated to Australia sounds very wise. I think that Holocaust survivors had something taken out of them and had to confront the meaning of life very directly.  The great existentialist psychologist Viktor Frankl wrote about that in his book, Man's Search for Meaning, which came from his Holocaust experience. He felt that even in the most dire situation or in suffering, we could find meaning in life. That kind of profound suffering makes any "stress" in our lives look pretty small.

I also liked one quote from that book: "Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."  
Title: Re: Positive aspects of stress
Post by: Jbird on April 06, 2010, 02:26:39 PM
Hi JC: I'm familiar with Frankl's book from an existentialism class I took way back in my undergrad days. Thanks for that quote! For someone like me, who tends to be reactive and impulsive, it's good to be reminded of my power to make good choices. I just wrote it out. It's going on the fridge! Speaking of existentialism, that's something that always resonated with me--especially Camus' writing--and it's interesting to note some overlap between existentialist and Stoic philosophers, especially around the idea of freedom. Both put forth the notion that you can experience freedom inwardly, regardless of external circumstances, for example in a prison or a concentration camp. For someone who couldn't even experience freedom in a cubicle, I'm unlikely to succeed in achieving that state of being, but the concept is very appealing. I especially like this quote from Camus, "In the depth of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer." 
Title: Re: Positive aspects of stress
Post by: JC on May 31, 2010, 11:12:16 AM
Jaye, somehow I see I never replied to this earlier post of yours. I was thinking about your point about how the existentialists emphasized inner freedom when I was watching the movie 'Gladiator' this weekend. It's a great movie. On the surface, it might seem like a macho film about Roman battles and gladiatorial contests, but it really isn't. It is a classic statement of Stoic philosophy. Russell Crowe is great as Maximus, the fictional great Roman general who is cast aside when Marcus Aurelius' evil and scheming son Comidus becomes emperor.  His unwillingness to bend to the will of Comidus and the corruption of Rome, but to maintain his freedom and dignity as he struggles to find a way to restore the Roman Republic, is inspiring. There are parallels with Camus and Frankl, but there is also something in this Stoic epic that goes beyond inner freedom, in that it recognizes a higher public purpose worth fighting and dying for. That may be one way in which the existentialist and Stoic philosophies diverge.

Hope all is well with you...haven't seen any recent posts. 
Title: Re: Positive aspects of stress
Post by: Jbird on July 14, 2010, 05:35:59 PM
Hi JC: Thanks for your comments on the movie. I'm not quite remembering if I saw it or not. I think I did but a really long time ago. It would be interesting to rewatch in light of your analysis. It's true I haven't been posting for some time, but I take a look around every once in awhile. This period of my life is a good test of thriving on stress because my work situation has really accelerated. I find myself feeling happy and focused by having so many assignments (I'm a freelance writer). I think I really am able to respond in a positive way to this type of stress because I experience it as an exciting challenge and it's also affirming, like I'm the popular girl. But because I'm online so much and writing so much for my work, I am disinclined to spend even more time online and writing in what little free time I have. I like to be physically active and try to get outside as much as I can when I take a break (I work from home). But still very much interested in the discussions here and trying to apply stoic principles to my daily life. Hope you're doing well and enjoying the summer! Jaye
Title: Re: Positive aspects of stress
Post by: JC on July 18, 2010, 02:15:04 PM
Jbird, nice to hear from you.  I know what you mean about how web and forum surfing can be a time sink.  And especially this time of year its great to be outside or otherwise active.  I also check in here from time to time, but haven't posted lately, except I chanced upon your recent post.

Its funny how when you mention "stoic" to most people, they think it involves supressing your emotions and handling tough situations like a martyr. But since I've been reading the Stoics, especially Seneca's letters and Marcus Aurelius, I find them to be quite light and fully of humor (sometimes even dark humor), realizing how trivial are many of things we get worked up about, and how empowering it is to test oneself and "get stronger" so that life's challenges are no longer a drag, but rather fuel for growth.

Glad to hear your job is going well. It would be interesting if you could tell us more about a specific way that you applied stoic principles on the job or in daily life.  I'm always interested in learning tips from others like yourself, who are finding success.

Title: Re: Positive aspects of stress
Post by: Jbird on July 30, 2010, 06:22:29 PM
Hi JC: I think some of the stoic principles just naturally resonate with an aspect of my nature. It's not entirely who I am. It's like the flip side of my Romanticism, but over the years I've learned to emphasize that aspect of myself in situations where reason and determination are necessary, as opposed to emotion and spontaneity. I never feel like a martyr in my stoic mode, but I do liken myself to a soldier when faced with a lot of work or something that's physically demanding--not in a grim, dutiful way but more like a hero in the ancient Greek or Roman sense. I enjoy feeling like I can overcome challenges, whether it's a tight deadline or a steep hill I'm biking up. I try not to let uncomfortable emotions get the better of me, and if I notice myself feeling sorry for myself, I remind myself of how lucky I am. I really think of self-pity as an enemy to vanquish. My favorite professor (Classics and Comparative Literature), who was himself a good model of stoicism, instilled that in me and I try not to forget the lesson. I think of self-pity as a luxury I can't afford. I pretty much always think about what I have to be grateful for and am generally satisfied with what I have. I'm not materialistic, by nature, and really do value relationships and experiences more than material things. I am also always aware of the impermanence of things and try to appreciate what I have when I have it. For example, I know my dog has a limited life span, so I try to appreciate his being young and playful and the fun times we are able to have together now. I try not to dwell on death but it's always in the background. I'm not particularly anxious and don't worry about things that aren't actually happening. I have friends who always seem to be worrying about potential problems, but I try not to pay attention to things that aren't having a direct impact on my life. I try to direct my energy and focus to the task at hand. This makes me sound more industrious and disciplined than I am. I just make myself do what needs doing. Living and working alone, there's no one to delegate to, but I seem to prefer being self-reliant...or at least thinking of myself that way! I hope this answered your question. Thanks for asking it! It's been interesting thinking up a response. How would you answer your question yourself?
Title: Re: Positive aspects of stress
Post by: JC on August 07, 2010, 05:36:39 PM
Thanks for the explanation, Jbird. I like the way you are able to balance your emotions between "Romantic" spontaneity with "stoic" self-discipline. Some may think of these as opposite ways of handling emotion, but I see no reason why they can't just be two sides of the same coin.

It was fair of you to ask me the same question I asked you: how do I apply stoic principles in my daily life? I would have to say that the biggest change in me since being influenced by Stoicism is that I've realized what I can let go of. If close friends, relatives or co-workers are making poor choices, I realize that they are outside of my "sphere of control", so I no longer fret about their choices. Yet I still try to be supportive and friendly, I'm not callous or anything. If "crises" arise at work, or the car breaks down, or someone yells at me, I realize that much in life is outside our control, so why get worked up about it -- that's just the way things are. In fact, I turn it around and whenever the "bad news" arises I try to figure out what specific things under my control I can do to make things better, I focus on those, and make it into a test of character.  And really I feel a lot better and more effective in dealing with these kinds of problems than I used to.  It may seem strange, but sometimes I look forward to problems (as long as they aren't overwhelming).  Does that seem strange?

Title: Re: Positive aspects of stress
Post by: Jbird on August 09, 2010, 03:09:58 PM
What you're talking about reminds me of the serenity prayer that 12-step programs use, which was originally written by the theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr. The part that's been adopted by AA and similar groups goes:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

I'm not religious so what I take from it is I pay less attention to what is beyond my power to influence and put a lot of focus on what I can influence. For example, I don't engage with people in a debating way. Something came up on this board and I started to write a response contradicting the point of view taken and decided against it. In the past, I would have voiced my opinion, but now I am more likely to think it through and decide that no harm is coming to me from someone holding this view, I'm not going to benefit even if I prove myself right and cause this person to change his or her outlook, and the potential downside is negative emotions being stirred up and staying stirred up. No flame wars for me! As for changing the things I can, at the end of Candide, Voltaire says, "We must cultivate our garden" and that's how I view myself--as someone who tries to take care of my own little patch of life. I don't feel like I can change the world, but I do believe I can change my world and that's where I direct my energy. I think looking forward to problems does sound a bit odd when you put it like that, but I think you are saying you welcome the opportunity to demonstrate you can deal with crises effectively. I do too. I like work emergencies that give me an opportunity to feel heroic. When people say they need a quick turnaround time, I ask when they need it and like to tell them I'll make it a priority and they'll have it even sooner. If my son is having a problem or my dog is sick, I marshall all my resources to address the situation. I also think situations like that help me feel a sense of purpose. I think a stressful situation is so much more tolerable and manageable if I feel like I have the ability to do something constructive. If I feel powerless or helpless, that's what makes a situation feel overwhelming. Who's yelling at you? I can't think of examples of that in my own life, so I wonder if you work in an environment where people yell. My work situations are much more civilized, thank goodness! P.S. After I originally posted this, I finally managed to pick up a copy of Irvine's "A Guide to the Good Life," and he mentions the Serenity Prayer in the introduction. Enjoying the book!