Rozen by Margaretha Roosenboom

Existential Stress, And How To Cope (Sort Of)

PUBLISHED November 25, 2020

Hi, hello, anyone feeling a little stressed out there?

How am I meant to get in the holiday spirit under these circumstances? And what, by God, is the root of this incredible amount of stress I feel?

I’m almost immobilized by a heavy pit in my stomach. It doesn’t feel like the other shoe is yet to drop, or that some doomsday scenario is looming (any more than the one that is already here). It’s more like a…perpetual and persistent self-judgement; a hum in the back of my head that is questioning, mocking every thought I have and move I make.

I feel completely clouded. Like I can’t see straight. One day blurs into the next. And it’s that hateful, nagging thing; when you know just what you should be doing but aren’t doing it, or are trying to do it but can’t quite seem to get a good grasp around that thing which you should be doing.

I’m the Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland, who thinks she’s running but really the background behind her is simply changing and whizzing by; she’s sprinting in place.

That’s how I feel: like I am sprinting in place.

Illustration of Alice and the Red Queen from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass by Sir John Tenniel
Illustration by Sir John Tenniel of Alice and the Red Queen from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass

When In Doubt Change the “I” to a “You”

Now, were I to be writing to myself as a different person with this same concern I would tell myself a few things. First, that the American instinct is to be moving forward at all times. We’ve been bred and raised on the mantle of productivity. We are judged by our output; cogs is a capitalist wheel. If you are not making lots of money, or working for someone, or clocking in only to clock out, if you’re not waking up early for the sake of burning more hours of daylight, then why are you even drawing breath? We have a culture that almost exclusively rewards exceptionalism, and I’ve very much taken ill with this malady.

I would tell myself that this societal insistence on productivity and exceptionalism is damaging and disastrous. We are only now seeing the trend shift ever so dramatically in the other direction as the American public wakes up to the truth at the heart of this myth: that we work harder, and longer, and endure more stress so that the majority of the money can filter all the way up to the tippy top 1%.

Tying one’s identity to one’s accomplishments eats at the very heart of how to build and develop healthy self-esteem. Child psychologists warn us against this very phenomenon, for we cannot be happy (at peace, gratified) while we feed into in a society that only values extreme and rare feats. In fact, the need to excel has more in common with a state of neurosis than laudable work ethic.

Tying one’s identity to one’s accomplishments eats at the very heart of how to build and develop healthy self-esteem.

You’ve got to, I would tell myself, identity a value system separate and apart from financial gain, public appreciation, and industry acknowledgment. You’ve got to find something else that gets you out of bed other than the idea that it’s what you’re meant to be doing and it’s what you’re here to do; to infuse the small, daily moments of activity with the a significant degree of meaning.

Lessons from Philosophers

In truth, if I were to evaluate my circumstances objectively I would see that I’m actually completely and totally fine. My basic needs are met and there’s no reason to believe that for the foreseeable future they won’t be. There are several options of potential future moves to make–it’s a matter of choosing the most appealing one and allowing it to play out for some time.

What I’m feeling, I’d eventually realize, is a sense of lack of control (which is probably why I’ve been so attracted to cooking and baking recently, activities that allow me to exercise a well thought out plan in perfectly achievable steps with a glaringly clear end goal). I have ventured into a space I haven’t been in in quite some time. I’m taking a risk that I avoided taking for years and years. And also the entire world is in the same position; no one knows what the next three, six, nine, or twelve months will look like. What a completely and utterly insane situation to be in, trying to go about as if things have any semblance of normalcy.

What I’m feeling, I’d eventually realize, is a sense of lack of control.

I am sitting pitched on an edge peering over into a future that I can’t quite make out. But isn’t that really always the case? No matter how secure we think our lives to be, aren’t we always operating in large part on total and complete faith? For who of us really can ever or has ever predicted with certainty the events that would shape our lives?

And who of us, with our paths plotted out, hasn’t gotten to the next curve in the track and decided that this isn’t quite the thing for us after all? Even with a lovely little plan, who’s to say you’ll even want what you’ve got once you’ve got it?

Insights into the stressed, unoccupied mind by The School of Life

And truly that’s it, in large part. Because as the 12th century philosopher Razi concluded, human needs and desires are endless, and “their satisfaction is by definition impossible.”

There is never a point at which we eventually arrive at our total and complete satisfaction. This is what the Buddhists try to teach us. That life is perpetual suffering in that we are human and to be human means to be constantly seeking that which you don’t have. The antidote to which, I’ve written before, is gratitude. If we tie our sense of self to exceptional accomplishments we bring on a fair amount of stress, anxiety, and depression. We also miss some of the best stuff of life, which happen to be the most simple moments.

Human needs and desires are endless, and their satisfaction is by definition impossible.

So maybe at this juncture I would sternly tell myself to be grateful for this state of discomfort; to acknowledge that I’ve already done quite a bit in pursuit of my big dream; that this is what this phase of life is intended to look and feel like: Uncertainty. Because that is the only indication that you are growing.

And really, it’s the truest indication that you are brilliantly alive.

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