A conversation with a client over the weekend, followed by a spill off the sidewalk, has me thinking about the funny ways our bodies call for change. And the anxious rebellion our mind wages to ignore the call: ‘I have no time for this.’ ‘I don’t slow down.’ ‘I can handle it.’ We are our own worst insurgents. Eventually, if we ignore our bodies long enough, we’ll be at war… with depression, or disease, or that intransigent grandmaster of fate– death, itself.
Contrary to popular belief, it is no great weakness to acknowledge that the rat race isn’t for humans. (It isn’t for rats, either, a sad fact proven again and again by scientists who put rats into stressful situations and then watch them crap out.)
But what to do, what to do? In justifying her reluctance to save herself, my client ducked into a blackhole of excuses– schedule, family expectations, future anxiety, paralyzing fear– before she said, ‘I mean, it’s amazing I’m even here for this massage.’ Which, I assured her, is a huge accomplishment. And a great step. And something that sends a telegram to her body that says, ‘I hear you, you wondrous strapping beast.’ It’s like that kindness you get from a stranger that reminds you that we’re all capable of loving and being loved.
It’s also the case, however, that the kindness of strangers might exceed the favor we show ourselves when we spiral into that black hole. My client, fortunately, had someone push her into her massage. Literally, with two hands. The thing is, the psychological stress that spins us– that some of us would say sustains us– is a relatively new phenomenon when you consider the time it took our animal kingdom to get around to crowning us. Old school homo sapiens might have suffered physical crises– running from predators, overcoming famine or bacterial infection– but their helplessness didn’t present the same sort of absurdities as comes with a showdown with your insurer or the DMV or the IRS. Fifty thousand years ago, no one was zooming at 80mph when someone decided to cut them off before slamming on the brakes. No one was ingratiating themselves to a grumpy customer so a middle manager in Houston would approve a paltry bonus. The bank didn’t even exist to call a loan on our cave sweet cave. Despite our apparent freedoms, our orbits expand and contract at the whim of forces beyond us. If we let them.
These stressors are not only ubiquitous– in the air as surely as particulate matter and dandelion kites– they’re insidious. They challenge our hearts, our nerves, our lungs, our adrenals and our tummies– the whole of our physiology. Under stress, our bodies careen to their edge, get taut like wire. Maybe they fray; maybe they snap. And while old school stressors– predators and drought– eventually tired or ended, new school stress doesn’t seem to tire. It keeps pinching our shoulders like that crappy alcoholic uncle. Which means our bodies never find a quiet moment to activate their magical mechanics of restoration and repair.
Enter our big, evolving brains. The smarts that come up with dumb ideas like for-profit health care can be put to use devising ways to see beyond for-profit health care. Or the inequities of the tax code. Or the sour relationship you have with your neighbor. Our big brains, with a little work and a lot of detachment, can help our bodies find ease. So offer yourself time to relax– a massage or a series of Slow Yoga classes is a good way to start. An evening walk away from a screen is great. A day spent in shade at the park. A morning reading poetry. Plant a garden, deep breathe, hold someone’s hand.
You have more control than you might think, and your control is pretty absolute. This is your life to manage. Act appropriately.