Stress and Belonging.

July 1, 2023

Stress and Belonging.

May 29, 2023

A few months ago, Chip wrote a wonderful piece called “What Should We Do About U.S. Longevity?” I couldn’t help but think of the stress related issues involved. Stress is related to obesity, heart disease, Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, depression, gastrointestinal problems, and asthma. Medical research estimates as much as 90 percent of illness and disease is stress-related.

When I worked at Stanford Graduate School of Education, we talked about “eustress,” the healthy amount of stress that gives motivation and engagement in life. But we have a lot more than that in the U.S. In 2019, before the pandemic, 55 percent of Americans said they had experienced stress during “a lot of the day” prior, compared with just 35 percent globally. 33 percent of Americans reported feeling “extreme stress.” I can’t imagine that those numbers have declined since. The United States is an achievement culture, our sense of identity is built around accomplishment, or even at its most enlightened, a sense of purpose.

As Elizabeth Gilbert once said:

"And y’know that there is sometimes I think: I have no value. I’m just loved.

I love to offer that to people as an alternative to the American purpose-driven life that says you don’t have any value unless you’re serving a purpose and what is your purpose and all of us are born with a purpose and you have to find your purpose and then you have to change the world with that purpose. All of that just makes the tendons in my neck stand out and gives me hives of anxiety that I’m doing it wrong or that I might never get there or that I had a purpose but then I failed and it should have been this one. All of that is just so tremendously anxiety-producing.

It’s so inhumane to teach people that that is what the point of their life is – is to earn, somehow, their presence on this earth through purpose and through what they contribute and it better be good. It’s just so mean.

The reality is that you are not required to have a purpose at all – that’s what it means to be loved. You are not required – nothing is required of you. Nothing is required of you. You are part of all of this. And could not be if you tried. And that, I think, is real peace."

In contrast to our achievement and purpose-driven culture (both of which are packed with privilege), many other places (including in Baja) have a culture where identity is based on belonging. People don’t seem to feel that they have to earn their place in the world, they simply belong, to their families, to their communities, to their homes. What a place to rest!

Most advice we get is to become more efficient. James Clear says build better habits. Seth Godin says to level up. Cal Newport says to get into Deep Work. Get more education, more certification. Manage your calendar better. Focus more with the Pomodoro technique. It sounds all very exhausting. And that’s the messaging we get all around us: it’s our fault we’re not doing enough. Just become “better.”

None of that is going to reduce stress. In fact, trying to do more in less time is only going to increase stress. It’s all a bit absurd. Charlie Chaplin’s or Lucille Ball’s factory scenes. By doing more in less time, we’re just speeding up the assembly line.

The only way to lower stress is to slow down the assembly line.

Everyone is trying to do “better.” And that’s the exact wrong thing to do. The right thing to do is do less. Work 50% less. Consume 50% less. Get less shit done, stop asking so much shit to be done. This isn’t even about prioritization. I’m talking about a 50% cut across the board. Just do less.

Try less. Be lazy. Be inefficient. If you do it, you’ll be healthier and happier. You’ll enjoy life more if you just followed wu-wei principles, the ancient Chinese principle of non-doing. If we all did it, we’d stop accelerating to ecological collapse. The Buddha said that a good driver knows how much load the ox can carry and keeps the ox from being overloaded. You are the driver and you are the ox. At your most wise.

At your very most wise, you’ll realize the earth is the ox too.

Pastor and writer Mark Buchanan said, "Most of the things we need to be most fully alive never come in busyness. They grow in rest." (which again, includes the Earth) We need to care not only about longevity, the number of years we live, but also the quality of aliveness within our lives. If we live many years, running around trying to earn our worthiness, living a long life is a Pyrrhic victory.

If I could communicate one thing as a spiritual director, it would be that nothing is required of you. You are part of all of this. And could not be if you tried.

Stop trying to do better. Just do less.

Douglas Tsoi is a spiritual director and write the newsletter Money and Meaning. He is a three-time MEA alum and has taught a MEA online course: “Soul Narration: Telling the Story of the Second Half of Your Life.”

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