Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Life, Change, and Stress

The Overload Syndrome: Learning to Live within Your Limits, by Richard Swenson

No wonder that so many people are stressed out so much of the time, says Swenson: We are living lives that are overloaded. More and more of us live as if we have 10 percent more time, money, and energy than we really have. Every human being has limits, but we tend to deny them – and experience fairly predictable results.

Where does this push to do more, to achieve more, to be in control of more actually come from? It seems to be the inevitable fruit of the religion of progress. We think that more and more should be accomplished with greater and greater efficiency. And while, amazingly, this continues to work (somewhat), the cost is high. We find ourselves facing a complexity of life that is beyond our capacity to absorb and adapt to. We have tremendously high expectations for our lives. We are saturated with media, information, and choices. We turn to work, spending, and busyness to accomplish things they just can’t deliver.

“There are only so many details that can be comfortably managed in anybody’s life. Once this number has been exceeded, one of two things happens: disorganization or frustration. … Every year we have more products, more information, more technology, more activities, more choices, more change, more traffic, more commitments, more work. In short, more of everything. Faster." (p. 43)

Swenson’s comments about change and choice, knowledge and information really hit home with me:

“William Shakespeare was born in 1564. When he died in 1616, the world around him was not very different from the world he was born into. .. and so it has been from generation to generation, for century upon century. …there has been more change from 1900 to present than in all of recorded history prior to 1900. And there is no deceleration in sight.” (p 73)

“If in 1950 we had ten activities to chose from, today – compliments of progress – we have a thousand.” (p. 65)

If, as Swenson (a medical doctor) claims, stress is basically “an internal physiologic adaptation to any change in our environment,” living a low(er?)-stress life in today’s world is going to take some serious counter-cultural living. Things like deciding not to buy any new clothes, to cancel most of one’s media subscriptions, or to stay in the same house or job even if something "better" is available. Downward mobility. Ruthlessly pruning activities; deciding to give up hurry.

Frequent moves, new jobs, changing fashions, new opportunities, new products and services and programs – constant upgrades – all sound great, but each one means making changes. And we only have so much capacity for change.

Today’s tidal wave of knowledge and information is also overwhelming. This is what I've been dealing with lately, having pulled back from my job as a gatherer and disseminator of information. Even though I love it. I really needed this break.

I suppose we could just be grateful to have so much at our fingertips, but it is so hard to unplug, or to live with mystery or ignorance when so much is out there for the knowing. I don't know about you, but I feel pressure to have opinions about so many things, to make educated decisions about ever-changing and increasingly complex issues, and to simply “keep up” with the world. Yet this pursuit frequently leads to frustration.

“Francis Bacon, a contemporary of Shakespeare, is regarded by historians as the last person to know everything in the world. Since then, each of us learns a progressively smaller percentage of all the information that exists…. Furthermore, there is no reason to suspect that the situation will suddenly reverse, giving us a chance to catch up.” (p. 136)

Unplugging is increasingly difficult. Even when not tempted, internally, I feel pressured, externally. Feel as if I must defend my position on this. To truly pull away seems irresponsible or at least anti-social. There must be something wrong with you if you don’t have an iPhone, or if you aren’t on Facebook, or your computer or camera or MP3 player is a couple years old and less fashionable and can’t do what someone else’s can. Swenson was writing in 1998, but even then he marveled at the trouble and expense he saw people making in order to give away their precious privacy, silence, and solitude, primarily through our commitment to the latest communication technologies.

“We have no excuse left for not being on-call for the universe.” (p. 45)

No wonder we are – I am – so often overwhelmed. Who can keep up?

My only real criticism of Swenson’s book is that, ironically enough, it is written in an up-to-the-minute style – chock full of statistics and “current” examples that probably worked great for the presentations he was giving at the time but seem quite dated now more than a decade later. If you're looking for something more recent that to quote/reference/recommend, you might try Swenson's just released In Search of Balance: Keys to a Stable Life. I've got a hold on it at the library. My guess is it would cover some similar ground, with more recent data. Both are from NavPress and are "Christian" books though the author teaches in secular settings as well.


Megan Noel said...

i agree with you re: unplugging. and ironically that generally means unplugging or turning off a piece of electronic equipment. (tv, radio, computer, phone) or unplugging from news / media. (i was listening to Ruby 1 last night! the media controls your mind! wait, ZBS is an example of media, too!) anyway, i agree but it is hard. i know one woman who is disabled, (servere bi-polar disorder) and unable to work. she blogs daily, which i think it a good way for her to reach out to people, as she is home alone most of the time. but she gets VERY stressed out if she gets behind on facebook, twitter, etc. it's sad that what is supposed to be fun can also be stressful. and that it causes a feeling of more people with expectations of you.

on a related note, re : too much info: someone asked me, as a closet geologist, if i thought there had been more earthquakes lately. i said no, the media is just reporting it more, and we are noticing it when they do, and anyway, there was a time when someone in Japan would never ever hear about an earthquake in Haiti. The way our media presents info, and the trends they follow, affects how we see the WORLD. so maybe Ruby is right after all. The media to some degree creates reality, or what we perceive as reality - and what is reality to us really other than what we think it is? if there is such a thing as true or ultimate reality, it is outside our ability to understand.

Marti said...

It does seem the great all the tech/communication tools we have are two-edged, doesn't it? The fact that we can keep up with each other so many ways can really heap on the pressure!

I hear people talking about their perception of natural disasters getting worse, too - but I'd agree, it's a matter of not having a long view of things.

Reality is a pretty slippery thing. I don't think this means we need to give up all hope of truth or ultimate reality - but it does make dogmatism about it rather ridiculous. Surely should inspire greater humility.

Megan Noel said...

i'll restate what i have said before, for the benefit of your readers, andrew weil (phd in botany and medicine, author of 8 weeks to optimum heath, pioneer of integrated medicine in the US of A*, says, out minds are really only designed to process the informaiton of our community and family. not of the larger world - that phenomenia is quite new. we have not really adapted to it, it can be overwhelming!
* integrated medicine is the use of eastern and western medicine together and to compliment each other. usually in the states overseen by an MD or an MD with a 2nd specialty. my MD is also a naturopath and generally knowledgable about both eastern and western medicine and able to refer me to practitioners of either.