A popular aphorism cynically holds that “Life is a bitch (i.e. struggle), then you die.” This resonates because most of us are familiar with the suffering that comes from lack or longing, as well as the tension and distress that accompany it. Such tension comes in a myriad of forms. Some of these are emotionally positive: desire, eagerness, anticipation, infatuation, hope. Many others fall on the dark side: jealousy, envy, disappointment, insecurity, feelings of inadequacy, personal failure, unrequited love, FOMO (fear of missing out), despair — sometimes to the point of sparking violence against self, others, or society.
Have you experienced any of the above? If so, congratulations! This simply means that you’ve been bestowed the gift of life.
Most cultures and philosophies tend to view tension and stress as a negative — something to be avoided to the greatest degree possible. Ongoing stress is generally thought of as “suffering”. Psychotherapies commonly view stress as a disease to be cured. Even the first principles of Buddhism (the epitome of a “Fine — whatever!” philosophy) hold that “Life is suffering” but that “There can be an end to suffering”.
Although the natural reflex to avoid pain is necessary for survival, it is all too easy to unthinkingly extend this impulse into a belief that an ideal life should be entirely free of all stress. Yet contrary to this, there is really only one entirely stress-free state: death. And that of course comes with it’s own existential downsides.
The Metaphysical Origin of Stress
Philosophies and religions, ancient to modern, commonly divide reality into two basic realms — one of ideal perfect forms (Plato) or divine spiritual perfection (most religions) versus the imperfect realm of physical and mortal existence. The former is often aspired to and sought after as a goal, while the latter is frequently viewed as an ordeal to be endured for the moment.
Yet what would be the nature of existence in the former? What “happens” in a state of perfect being? It seems the answer must be “nothing”. Greek philosopher Parmenides held that the greater cosmos always exists whole, complete, unchanging, and eternal. Therefore motion and change as commonly understood is impossible as it implies an incompletion in the universe that then can be filled. In a state of divine perfection, nothing is needed, so nothing need be done.
This is reflected in the difficulty that most religions face in forming a compelling vision of an “afterlife”. Such is sometimes characterized simply as unlimited amounts of whatever one might find interesting in this life (“72 virgins” or golf 24x7). American humorist Mark Twain once observed that the Christian conception of Heaven is an eternal church service “… which everyone knows no man can abide for more than two hours.”
Perhaps it’s due to my own short-sightedness, but undifferentiated eternal bliss sounds like it might be a little tedious and boring after the first millennia or two. (Perhaps that’s why the gods of Greek mythology kept taking human form and descending to wreak mischief among the humans. After an eternity of dining on nectar and ambrosia, one might want to come down to earth once and a while and get a falafel.)
Tension as the Essential Motivator
From a high-level view, virtually all of life is animated by a tension of one sort or another. An organism feels a sense of lack or discomfort while in Condition A, and then longs to move to Condition B, where the desire is fulfilled or the pain is mitigated. When hungry or thirsty, one seeks food and drink. When tired, one sleeps, When threatened, one seeks safety. When bored, one seeks stimulation and novelty. When lonely, companionship. When inspired with a vision, one seeks fulfillment of the same.
Such motivation spans the entire range of living systems — from bacteria adapting to antibiotics and tree roots reaching for moisture, through organisms going about the business of daily life, on up to world leaders, scientists, and philosophers seeking, for good or ill, to effect global change.
Deliberate, Voluntary Stress
Though tension and stress are commonly thought to be unpleasant and undesirable, there are numerous occasions in which most of us actively seek it. Scary or thrilling movies, athletic competitions, engaging in potentially injurious sports, carnival rides, political activism, arguing with family members or opponents, stewing over an offense, pining over a lover — sometimes simply replaying angry incidents in one’s mind. All such experiences involve some degree of voluntary tension, ranging from mild stress to rage or terror. Why would we do this to ourselves?
The Basic Drive of Life
How do we know and feel that we are alive? What is the basic thrust of life? It is to have experiences — a consciously aware mental and/or physical engagement with the world (even if only in memory or imagination). Moreover, experiences generally always have a “feeling” component. This can be emotional or physical — or both.
Ideally, such feeling and aliveness will come through constructive engagement with others or the world: socializing, learning, teaching, helping, playing with others, exercising a skill, solving a problem, creating something. Such experiences come from a positive tension that moves one from Condition A to a Condition B in which the tension is resolved.
Unfortunately, when for whatever reason the positive route is not available, some will seek to experience their aliveness through negative or unproductive means: arguments, fights, rage, destructiveness, belittling, vandalism, harmful competition, mental obsessions, overeating or drinking or other self-destructive behavior. Perhaps even something sinister as war may be partly motivated by attempts to feel actualized through aggressive experience. “I destroy, therefore I am!”
Alternatively, the absence of any sort of experience, the absence of any feeling at all, more than boredom, may feel like one ceases even to exist. The ongoing hell of anger, resentment, or depression may seem preferable to oblivion.
The Illusion of Eternal Comfort
Many of us at times feel dissatisfaction with the way our lives are unfolding. We may feel disappointed with our station in life. We may be confused about what to do next, or fear that we are inadequate to the challenge of living the “proper” life.
Western society in particular tends to keep us motivated by dangling the carrot of ultimate happiness, success, and security — always just out of reach, drawing us forward with the promise of eventually crossing some threshold of complete comfort and fulfillment.
Yet in view of the above, this appears to be a naive fantasy. To feel some measure of tension, distress, longing, dissatisfaction is normal — it is an integral feature of existence. It provides the energy that motivates us not only to survive, but to learn, grow, and evolve as a species. “No pain, no gain” seems to be not only a weight-lifting body-builder credo but a statement about life itself.
Rather than objecting to and resisting the stresses of life, were we to see them for what they are and embrace them proactively, our experience of life might flow more easily — and ironically, might result in the richer life that we were longing for in the first place.