We live in a high-pressure, high-stress society. In Japan, the symptoms of extreme levels of stress are seen in the “death from overwork” syndrome and a tragically high suicide rate. Vicious bullying among children is likewise a reflec- tion of this stress.
Martin Seligman, renowned for his research into the psychology of hope, expresses his concern about what he calls “big I and small we” — a distended self-centered-ness and an increasingly attenuated sense of connection with others. It seems clear this tendency must be confronted if we are to prevent our lives from growing even more stressful.
In the past, human society provided encouragement and opportunity for people to extend support to each other, especially in highly stressful situations. Regrettably, many of the networks that supported us have been weakened or undermined. Faced with stress, too many people feel they have nowhere to turn to, that they don’t have access to the kind of friendships or communities where they can easily and openly share their problems and worries.
The term “stress” is originally from physics and refers to the deformation of a body that has been subjected to external forces. It later came to be used to refer to the effect of various pressures on the mental and physical well-being of people. Needless to say, just as different materials bear up better or worse under the strain of physical pressure, our ability to deal with stressful situations varies widely from person to person.
A work or interpersonal situation that one individual finds intolerably stressful might, for someone else, not even register as stress. Stress will also affect the same person very differently on different occasions. Even seemingly happy events such as marriage or a job promotion will often provoke a stress reaction.
For this reason, telling someone that their problem is no big deal, even with the helpful intention of encouraging them, might actually deepen and intensify their experience of stress. The reactions of the human heart are not mechanical and predictable but infinitely subtle and delicate.
From one perspective, core sources of stress can be traced to our contemporary ideas about the nature of the self. On the one hand, we are each expected, as “free individuals,” to be able to deal unaided with any situation. At the same time, the massive bureaucratic structures of society treat people as components and cogs, inculcating the sense that we are powerless to shape our fate, much less to move human society in a new and better direction. Torn between excessive expectations and feelings of ultimate powerlessness, people become increasingly susceptible to the impact of stress.
Coping successfully with stress requires that we try to see ourselves in a different light. We need a deeper understanding of our truly limitless potentialities as well as our vulnerabilities, how we can develop our strengths as individuals through mutual support.
Hans Selye, who pioneered the field of stress research, offered the following advice based on his own experience of battling cancer: First, establish and maintain your own goals in life. Second, live so that you are necessary to others — such a way of life is ultimately beneficial to yourself.
It is natural for us, as human beings, to look forward. Our eyes naturally look ahead. In this sense, we are made for moving toward a goal. At the same time, reaching out to others who suffer strengthens our ability to meet our own problems and challenges with courage.
The Buddhist sutras contain this well-known parable:
One day, Shakyamuni was approached by a woman wracked by grief at the loss of her child. She begged him to bring her baby back to life. Shakyamuni comforted her and offered to prepare a medicine that would revive her child. To make this he would need a mustard seed, which he instructed her to find in a nearby village. This mustard seed, however, would have to come from a home that had never experienced the death of a family member. The woman set out from house to house, asking each for a mustard seed. But nowhere could she find a home that had never known death. As she continued her quest, the woman began to realize her suffering was something shared by all people. She returned to Shakyamuni determined not to be overwhelmed by grief.
Physical and mental training transform our experience of things. The same steep slope that for the unskilled skier provokes only terror is, for the expert, a source of excitement and joy. Likewise, with persistent study, we can draw knowledge and inspiration from the most deep and difficult text.
Just as physical training can bring forth the unseen capacities of our bodies and intellectual training develops our minds, our hearts can be trained and strengthened. Through the process of overcoming grief, for example, it becomes possible for us to see beyond our own sufferings and concerns to develop a more expansive and robust sense of self. This experience can inspire compassionate acts for others who have known this same pain.
By working with and for the sake of others, it is possible to make even stressful situations an opportunity to learn to live with enhanced energy and focus. It seems unlikely that the sources of stress we face will decrease; indeed, it seems highly probable that they will increase.
Now, more than ever, we need to develop the qualities of strength, wisdom and hope as we forge expanding networks of mutual support.
In the end, the key to living in a stress-filled society lies in feeling the suffering of others as our own — in unleashing the universal human capacity for empathy. There is no need to carry the burden of a heavy heart alone.