What “Normal Stress” Conceals

My strategy for getting things done

Have you ever played misery poker?

It was a pretty popular game when I was an undergrad, when we all could ante up paper lengths and nearness of deadines to see who would win the prize of “most screwed.”  It still comes up in my “adult” life (though my law school friends tend to have a lock on “least sleep”).  Some of my friends can match my comments about the latest Gunnerkrigg Court with “Geez, I haven’t had time to read any of my usual webcomics for the last three weeks” while I tend to be over-scheduled enough to have the longest streak for “haven’t eaten a meal in my own apartment.”

Whichever dimension we compete on, we all have enough business to explain away our stress and restlessness.  But, one of the other panelists at the Fare Forward event at the Catholic Information Center made a remark that made me wonder if part of the point of Misery Poker is to explain away any sense of incompleteness.

Andy Quinn was talking about the drive of ambition and the way it can teach us to expect restlessness.  We wind up thinking of ourselves like sharks — we have to keep moving to stay alive.  Complaining about strain is equivalent to wishing to be lazy or to stop growing.  And, with everyone around us matching us in misery poker, we’re likely to conclude that a certain baseline level of stress is not just admirable, but also natural.

At the panel, I was reminded of the academic literature on self-handicapping.  We self-handicap when we’re afraid we’ll fail and are afraid of having to attribute that failure to a defect in our intellect or character.  So a student stays up all night partying before a test or an athlete skips practice or a candidate drinks before an interview.  Having an obvious problem makes it easier to believe that of course you would have succeeded if you’d put a real effort in, but self sabotage shields you from ever testing the hypothesis.

My busy schedule makes it easy to explain my feelings of unease.  If I could just clear my schedule for a little while or have a free weekend (I haven’t had one without a trip or other substantial commitment for all of March-April) any feeling of restlessness would of course be cured.  I just haven’t had the chance to test the hypothesis yet.

In fact, although it would probably be good to have a little more time to sleep, it’s likely that I’d still be restless or strained even if I were given my leisure.  As my confirmation saint, Augustine, declared, “Because God has made us for Himself, our hearts are restless until they rest in Him.”  But my quotidian strains and stresses paper over this more existential restlessness and hide it from my attention.  While I think vaguely about what I’d do with more time, I’m not actually trying out my solutions and seeing what I’ve left out.

With more time, I’d do more reading, sleeping, and baking, but, I suspect I’d still have an unfilled ache to live with close friends again, instead of (socially-speaking) on my own.  It doesn’t require more time to start addressing that last concern, just as I don’t need an entire free weekend to pick up Lectio divina again, but, as long as I can attribute my problems primarily to time, I won’t explore or address my other needs.

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