Life Tests and Other Stressful Situations

by Jack McLean

Published in Gulf Islands Driftwood (1998)

One of the universals of human existence is that we are all subject to pain and suffering, both bodily and psychically. While the western world is generally favoured — some might say pampered — with a standard of living, creature comforts and labour saving devices that greatly reduce the stress of daily life, we nonetheless experience periodic high levels of distress.

In one sense, we all feel justified by the measure of our pain. The dose always seems sufficient to our capacity, although the tough-minded will argue against the tender-hearted that we have not yet experienced enough real hardship to promote personal growth and strength of character for what was once called “nation-building.” A world economic collapse might promote the development of virtues that otherwise could not thrive. A ready flow of cash and abundant material goods seem to bring in their wake widespread self-satisfaction and indifference to the suffering of others.

The phrase “pain and suffering” has two closely interactive components. Both words can refer to the distress of the body and/or mind. Sigmund Freud’s witty little question, “Have you ever had a toothache?” was meant to indicate that we experience pain as a total thing. The mind suffers in tandem with the body. The body feels the distress of the mind.

In true psychosomatic fashion, it is hard to separate out the pain of the body from that of the mind. Whatever does violence to the body is felt by the emotions. Medical science has now clearly determined that mental or emotional illness can trigger serious somatic reactions. The word “heart” is itself a “double-entendre” and indicates the close body/mind connection. You can die from a coronary thrombosis. They say you can also die of a broken heart.

What intrigues me about the pain in all our lives — and here I am speaking of psychic distress as a point of origin rather than bodily pain — is how much of what we learn at the school of hard knocks is self-originated and/or other-originated and how much is within or beyond our control. And here, while some scenarios look clear, I must confess that the lines in other cases are blurry.

What I am labelling the Type 1 Test, the test that is “other-originated,” would seem to be clear enough. This test is brought to our doors by the universe, God or some adverse condition for which the individual is not responsible: a factory closes and a man is thrown out of work, a child inherits a fatal disease, a loved one is tragically killed, we are deceived or betrayed by a “friend,” entire populations become refugees in ethnic conflict or mercilessly suffer genocide. The list goes on. In these cases, the individuals did not do anything to deserve the misfortune. The distress originates in conditions of life over which there is little or no control.

The Type 2 Test, however, is “self-originated” and within our control. My doctor determines that I have an allergy to sea food but I cannot resist the temptation to taste the smorgasbord lobster and I end up in the emergency ward. The business executive rarely spends time with his children while he climbs the corporate ladder and wonders why they do not desire his company when they are adults. The alcoholic wonders the same thing. The lady who blames everyone else for her troubles and never takes responsibility for her own actions wonders why she has no friends and is in ongoing conflict in the workplace. Clearly, here, the individual, not the circumstance, is the origin of the trouble. I suspect that the vast majority of our troubles are a Type 2 — a failure to do the right thing.

To remedy this situation we have to become conscious of our actions and take stock, not just of our virtues, but also our weak points or vices and to initiate change of ingrained behaviour patterns. Remedies will come with stepping back and taking a responsible self-inventory and being willing to take corrective measures.

But there is a third type of test, still in the challenging realm of human relationships, that I am labelling The Type 3 Test. Here the lines are blurred. This test is both “self and other-originated.” It involves subtle, delicate things that unchecked can lead to major conflict — sensitivities, expectations, assumptions, breakdowns in communication, innuendo rather than straight talk, accusation and denial.

For those who care enough to remedy the situation, this type of test requires that all parties admit to the difficulty and agree in a spirit of goodwill to work it out. Sometimes welcome breakthroughs are achieved. But sometimes individuals just have to accept the situation, make do and rise above. But in all cases, gracious acceptance proves salutary. Even calamity often proves in the end to be a blessing.

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