Surfing the Waves of Stress
I just finished Chip Walter’s book, Last Ape Standing: The Seven-Million-Year Story of How and Why We Survived. I have a lifelong interest in human pre-history™ and evolution, and found much of it quite fascinating, if decidedly materialist™ in its metaphysics when it came to discussing human consciousness. A good, fun tale, IMO. I’m glad I read it.
The book has an epilogue which Walter calls “The Next Human,” in which he discusses some possibilities for the future of human evolution, especially in terms of culture and technology and how those forces intersect with biology. The epilogue contains, not to my surprise, a warning:
“Evolution, as the past four billions years have repeatedly illustrated, holds an endless supply of tricks up its long and ancient sleeve. Anything is possible, given enough millennia. Inevitably the forces of natural selection will require us to branch out into differentiated versions of our current selves, like so many Galapagos finches… assuming, that is, that we have enough time to leave our evolution to our genes. We won’t, though, and none of these scenarios will come to pass. Instead, we will come to an end, and rather soon. We may be the last apes standing, but we won’t be standing for long.”
He goes on to say that we have invented “a world for which we are altogether ill fit” and that “in ourselves, we may have finally met our match,” becoming, with our consciousness and culture and ability to innovate, “an evolutionary force to which even we cannot adapt.”
It’s at this point that the author surprised me. Rather than launch into the usual Doomer™ laundry list of “horrible” problems™ we© have created, and which many think will “take us out,” he puts his focus elsewhere:
“The best evidence that we are growing ragged at the hands of the Brave New World we have busily been rolling off the assembly line is the growing numbers of us who freely admit to being thoroughly stressed. A recent study reported that the United States is ‘a nation at a critical crossroads when it comes to stress and health.'”
When I say “surprised,” I mean happily so, as I’ve long considered the evidence for stress as a compelling argument in support of my basic contention (not original to me, to be sure), which is that modern humans living inside what Daniel Quinn termed “the Culture of Maximum Harm” are not busily “saving the world” for the simple fact that “the world” – the culture and its institutions as they exist in the larger planetary setting – is not really what they want, and is making many (or most) of them miserable. And the signs of that misery, as Walter goes on to show, are everywhere, and are easily seen in the statistics, from addiction and abuse to mental illness and depression, from obesity and relationships to racism and scapegoating and the number of people experiencing dental problems from grinding their teeth. As John Elder Robison says in Switched On, his new book in which he recounts the story of how an experimental procedure called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) changed his emotional experience as a person with Asperger’s:
“Before TMS enlightened me, I thought the reason I often felt somewhat down was that I could not receive positive emotions from other people. Now I knew the truth: most of the emotions floating around in space are not positive. When you look into a crowd with real emotional insight you’ll see lust, greed, rage, anxiety, and what for lack of a better word I call “tension” – with only the occasional flash of love or happiness…. Now everything I heard, saw, or read was fraught with feeling, almost all of it negative. Everywhere I looked people were scared. It was impossible for me to stay on an even keel in the face of such overwhelming unpleasantness, and I wished I had my autistic emotional oblivion back. Great as the TMS-derived insight was, it came at the cost of losing a powerful protection. Without it, I was essentially naked in a hostile world.”
Stress. Tension. A hostile world. Is it everywhere, as Walter and Robison say? Is stress in all of us, we who live in the global industrial culture, so strong as to act as an evolutionary force? I think so. It surely seems to be a major factor in Sally’s and my life.
For myself, I find that stress falls into three general categories: the neurological, the existential, and the situational. The first is a matter of Aspie wiring, a thing of pathways and grooves and ruts, a background crackle of hiss and pop as my meatbag™ sizzles on the bug zapper of heightened awareness and sensory activity. It’s the panic that fuels the attempts to control. It’s the pulling away from sounds and sights and textures that irritate or offend or distract. It’s the flight or fight or freeze that gets triggered in the open glade. It’s the head full of chattering spin doctors endlessly arguing about good and bad and right and wrong, the “nattering nabobs of negativism” with whom I share brain space, and whom I have had to learn to ignore, just as John Nash did.
Like the first category, the second operates primarily in the background of my being, a wash of existential worry and wondering and wandering that rises in general terms, I think, from the inherent vulnerability of living in a limited, limiting body in the physical bands of reality, and in more specific terms from the more pointed vulnerability of living in the decidedly surreal times and circumstances of our “post-exuberant” world. It’s the felt sense of what Daniel Quinn termed “cultural collapse,” in which the fact remains that very few of our facts remain, where the known and the believed and the consensed-upon have all been left stabbed and bleeding on the sidewalk, where the touchstones of God™ and History™ and Matter™ and Reality Herself™ have all been torn apart on the witness stand, cross-examined by the dominating voices of science and materialist philosophy and culture and the increasingly inescapable consequences of our collective global-industrial experiment in growth and control. Where do I belong? What’s real? What does it all mean? Where am I headed, and how will I get there, and what purpose do I serve along the way? It seems that the fundamental questions never go away, and never quite find a satisfactory answer, and reality itself bobs and weaves when I try to grab hold of it. The centre does not hold…
And then there’s the situational stress, the more immediate and life-based questions and uncertainties and experiences that tend to stand out as signals against the underlying noise. We’re moving. Again. We’re fixing up houses. Selling houses. Downsizing belongings. Sorting and choosing and deciding. Finishing old projects and contemplating new ones. Moving into a new career phase. Moving into a new climate. We’re saying good-bye and we’re saying hello, saying no and saying yes, asking the ancestors and looking for doors that open. We’re busting our butts every day hauling and repairing and constructing and painting and tiling. And all of that adds to our stress.
Do we invest more to make our houses more sellable? Do we change their legal structure? Offer incentives? Where do we spend our money, and when? Do we want to be absentee landlords if we cannot sell? Is there any way to get our investment back? Do I put the editing on hold in order to make this move? Do I begin the next book? Will we regret living in the hot summer South? Will we miss the Northern climes? What will it be like, to be live so close to so many people, so much growth, so many cars on so many roads? The uncertainties are endless. There are few “right answers.” There are risks to take. There are past mistakes. There are broken relationships. There are fears. Anger. Hope. Expectation. Excitement. Doubt. Loneliness. Plans. Dreams. And all of these things add to our stress.
But here’s the thing: even with all of this stress, even though there are days when we’re sore or exhausted or down or irritated or afraid or overwhelmed, we seem to be thriving. Sally and I are working well as a team, and finding enjoyment and fulfillment in our tasks, and are learning to surf the waves of uncertainty and stress with ever greater skill and grace.
We’ve learned to recognize and make conscious the stressors in our lives, to put voice to them so that they do not control us from behind the curtain. And we have a number of daily practices we use to counter or alleviate our stress. We take a number of supplements and probiotics. We eat high-quality food. We take a long walk, during which we discuss and share and process our thoughts and feelings. Sally listens to podcasts while she works, soaking up the thoughts of teachers and leaders and gurus. I listen to wonderful music. Together we do a twenty-minute relaxation response exercise. We talk to the Cosmos, the gods, the ancestors, and ask for guidance and assistance, and look for ways in which we are not alone with all of this. We get as much sleep as we can, here in this place where the sky begins to brighten at three-fucking-thirty in the goddamn morning.
We’re finding a way to beat the stress, to use it, to even befriend it. Because while Walter may end the book by talking of stress as a negative force, it’s also clear from his long history of human evolution that it was stress that made us who we are, that shaped the human animal. Counter to the fantasy that humans were born and raised in a lush jungle filled with low hanging fruit, it seems that, while there have certainly been many times and places in which life was indeed sweet, it was really a series of massive changes and hard situations that pushed us along the path to here and now.
At one point, due to ice-aged climate changes (and perhaps the proximate effects of the Toba supervolcano), H. sapiens was reduced to a few thousand souls, clinging to hardscrabble life on the southern shores of South Africa. Think of it. Now that’s what I call a bottleneck. And yet when the stressors ended, we bounced back to spread across the globe, bringing new meaning to that famous Nietzsche quote: “that which does not kill us makes us stronger.”
And I think that’s what Sally and I are feeling these days. Stressed, but stronger. We’re doing it. Figuring shit out. Making better choices. Feeling more clear. And feeling able in our bodies. A recent study showed that it’s not actually stress that is harmful. It’s the belief that stress is harmful that is actually harmful. So we’re doing our best to not regard the stress in our lives as bad or wrong.
Walter thinks of stress as an evolutionary force. I would observe that evolution (whether of bodies, cultures, or ideas) tends to work by selecting for the few individuals, the new mutations, who are better suited for new and changing conditions, and selecting against those who are less suited. Some get swept forward in the grand parade of lifeform packaging (sorry, couldn’t resist..). Most get left behind, unable to thrive in the new conditions. In our rapidly changing world, perhaps our learning to surf the waves of stress will give us an edge. If not at the level of biology, then at least at the level of culture and thought and relationship and creativity.
It may be a hostile world™, but we’re not entirely naked and vulnerable. That feels pretty good.