Friday, May 28, 2010


It's funny to think about what sends someone over the edge. We love to hear stories, real or fictional, about people who persevere and survive in shocking conditions. Jack Bauer never quits. The cast of Lost keep fighting against.. well.. who can follow the plot?  Man cuts off his own arm to survive. Woman gives birth in Wal*mart. We like to think that under extreme conditions, the human spirit imbues us with super-human strength or stamina or whatever. 

I'm sure that's true. I've been blessed never to have been tested - and I would be curious how many have failed by their own lack of oomph. Hikers lost on mountains, surfers dancing with sharks, folks fighting bears - they all might have been Superman before they succumbed to powers that were truly stronger than their own. Or, some of them might have just said "oh well" and handed the bear their other arm. But, I bet there are few of the latter out there. I bet most people can do much more than "normal" when life is on the line.

This makes me think of what sends us over the edge in normal life. For me, I'm on day 5 of mostly-sleepless nights. Each night I have gotten between 3-6 hours, always interrupted multiple times. Frankly, i'm tapped. I feel like I could sleep for 3 days. It's made me depressed, mildly irrational, generally teary, and certainly impatient. The allergies aren't helping, nor are a number of unrelated but poorly timed circumstances. I know it will pass. But, I also know that this week, I'm basically done. 

It feels like wussing out. If some guy can cut off his own arm to save himself in a canyon somewhere, or my friend can take on cancer with firm and persistent resolve (Go JK!), why can't I make it through this week without resorting to tears? Kelly Cutrone's "if you're going to cry, go outside" mantra keeps replaying in my head. None of what I'm experiencing is so dire that it justifies this response. I really haven't lost the perspective. I haven't spiraled to that teen-angsty place where my problems are earth shattering and unique. I know it is just a confluence of stupid with no cosmic implications or evil villain behind it. 

So here's my running theory. Limits are contextual. If I had to fight a bear RIGHT NOW, at 7:22 with limited sleep and limited coffee, I would probably rally and give it a good shot (and then become breakfast). The impediment's severity is contextualized by the subsequent expectation. Life-and-death situations have no subsequent expectations. Goal: Survive. Next: Whatever. If the impediment is "no sleep" and the next day you're expected to sit on the couch, catch up on star trek, and nap lightly... I can nail that one. If the next day, I'm meant to put on heels and write decent powerpoint - that's less viable. If the impediment is 'bottle of wine', but the expectations is 'pass out on couch' vs. 'drive to new york' - the true impact of the impediment is different.

Maybe it's rationalization. But, I've hit my limit for what I can handle (albeit mundane stupid things like sleep, lack of exercise, lack of quiet time, corporate stupidity and allergies) given that the expectation is that I work a 8-9 hour day and achieve above-average performance on that job, ensure the loaner pets are cared for, and clothe and feed myself. If someone gave me a week off, I think I could do better. But, with these expectations... I'm tapped. Or maybe just because my life doesn't depend on it.


PD said...

Interesting thoughts! It could also be the body's stress response. We are programmed to respond to stressful events that put us in existential danger. And that's good for fighting off bears or whatever. The problem is that for many of us, anything that happens on a daily basis elicits the same level of response. Driving, caring for dogs, a wierd email at work, too many phone calls, whatever. So that by the end of the week, stress hormones are rushing through the body and we're just exhausted.

Paul McManus said...

Yes, I agree we would all respond to the bear in the way you describe, but many of the "trials" we are tested by every day are self-made. I would ask, "why were you in the woods at that moment in the first place?" Cancer is either a roll-of-the-dice or one of God's trials, depending on your point of view.

For me its more than context. It's a matter of perspective and an understanding of how the present fits into "some" particular (personal) future. "Keep your eye on the prize" extols not only the idea of putting the daily trials into perspective but also Thoreau's idea of doing things on purpose. Therefore, the question for each of us is "What is the prize?"

If your goal is to enjoy the woods in bear country in the early morning, you should understand there is a high probability you will encounter a bear. You should not be surprised, but rather prepared. In that case your reaction may change from "OMG a bear" to "OMG a bear, whoa cool!"