Wednesday, December 21, 2005

This tapestry called Life

Stanford University professor Robert Sapolsky has spent a lifetime studying stress and its baneful effects on the human body. Among his varied discoveries is the effect adventitious suffering has on human health. This caught my eye while reading a piece in The Washington Post. It is a concept that is readily grasped. I wonder what took so long to put a name to it.

The body's reaction to stress can become chronic and pernicious. This doesn't happen because a physical threat to safety continues for a long time, but because humans -- endowed with imagination, memory and language -- have the ability to create psychological stress, even when no physical or emotional threat is present. Sapolsky, author of the book "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers," calls this "adventitious suffering -- the pain of what was, what will be, what could be or what someone else is experiencing."

The body makes no distinction between immediate, in-your-face stressors and chronic, in-your-imagination ones, Sapolsky said. Faced with either kind of threat, the body reacts, and when the threat is sustained psychologically, the physically destructive stress response continues.

To me, this is a uniquely modern phenomenon, a condition afflicting our post-modern selves: what Woolf deems “a well of tears” in Mrs. Dalloway.

She remembered once throwing a shilling into the Serpentine. But every one remembered; what she loved was this, here, now, in front of her; the fat lady in the cab. Did it matter then, she asked herself, walking towards Bond Street, did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely? but that somehow in the streets of London, on the ebb and flow of things, here, there, she survived, Peter survived, lived in each other, she being part, she was positive, of the trees at home; of the house there, ugly, rambling all to bits and pieces as it was; part of people she had never met; being laid out like a mist between the people she knew best, who lifted her on their branches as she had seen the trees lift the mist, but it spread ever so far, her life, herself.

And a little later:

This late age of the world's experience had bred in them all, all men and women, a well of tears. Tears and sorrows; courage and endurance; a perfectly upright and stoical bearing.

This mood permeates the length of the novel. Adventitious suffering, Sapolsky calls it. The question is can it be checked. Is it not built in the fabric of life: to ponder, to reflect, to regret? It is this suffering that kills Septimus, this anxiety that defines Clarissa’s life. What effect might the absence of such traits in the lead characters have had on the quality of the novel? It’s literature at its zenith when Clarissa says to herself, “she survived, Peter survived, lived in each other.” What are the tradeoffs in this fight of sanity and a life that is lived to its fullest, with the attendant frivolities and pursuits, sorrows and grandness? It’s not just about psychology or literature; it’s about rage against an unbearable lightness of being.


Always...the hours
Depression and Creativity: Brothers in arms?

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