The radio host had just introduced me to her listeners. At her request, I then made a few comments about the nature of stress and various ways in which to effectively deal with the pressures of life. It was 2:00 P.M. in Colorado, where I was seated in my living room. It was 4:00 P.M. in Washington, D.C. at her radio station. This was the "Voice of America,' and the show was being broadcast live all around the world.
"Sebastian from Paris, go ahead," she said. "Oui! Merci. Thanks for taking my call. My mother has cancer and I was wondering how best to deal with this?" I gave a short bit of advice which pleased him and we were on to the next call. For the next hour, people from all over the world called in on a toll-free line. There was Kim from Tokyo, Marion from Johannesburg, South Africa; Terif rang from Cairo. There was Sarah in London, Monica in Sao Paulo, Mohammed from Sri Lanka, Chee from Kuala Lumpur. Rajesh, from New Delhi, was the last call. For the entire hour, I was connected to the heartbeat of the planet.
Stress: A Global Epidemic
The World Health Organization calls stress "a global epidemic", and while I have quoted the WHO several times over the past few years, it was not until that afternoon in 1997 that I realized how true this fact was. Stress may be as American as apple pie, but it is also as worldwide as bread pudding. It doesn't matter who you are, where you live, how much money you make, or how dysfunctional your parents were while you were growing up -- stress is a stranger to no one. For better or worse, stress is an inevitable fact of life. A theme common to stress is that of loss, whether the loss of a spouse, child, job, or life itself.
While there is no escaping stress, there are many ways to deal with it effectively. In a world filled with so much stress, surely there must be some good from it. Ageless wisdom tells us as much with metaphors that have become household clichés -- from silver linings and lemonade to lessons, blessings, and gifts. In the midst of chaos and catastrophe, at first it may be difficult to see the silver lining or taste the lemonade. Even so, we must remind ourselves that there is a reason for every circumstance, even if we never become aware of it or, perhaps more likely, we don't agree with the reason when we do get a chance to glimpse the bigger picture.
The Bigger Picture Can Be Clearly Viewed Through Stories
The bigger picture can often be clearly viewed from the vantage point of stories. Since the dawn of humanity, stories have been shared as a teaching tool, to guide souls further along the human path, sometimes as advice, but more often than not as a reminder of what we already know at a deeper level -- that there is no separation from our divine source. Psychologists on the vanguard of conscious thought tell us that stories speak to the audience of perceptions housed in the right hemisphere of the brain. Stories penetrate and nurture those cognitive functions which are receptive to thought, open to ideas, impressionable to stimulus, and sympathetic to emotions. Nowhere is this better understood than through the recounting of fables, folklore, and fairy tales, each built on the foundation of a moral or human truth. Parables were the preferred method of teaching for Jesus of Nazareth, after all.
Today, in the age of high technology and rushed lifestyles, stories are proving to be extremely popular in bringing the focus of life back to a soul level, rather than operating at the unstable apex of ego. Theories and facts speak to the rational, linear mind; stories address issues of the heart and matters of the soul. In truth, both allegory and fact are needed to walk the human journey in balance. So let us begin with a story.
Teasing the Winds of Fate
Running up a flight of stairs with a glass milk bottle is not the smartest thing to do, but teenagers do foolish things. At thirteen, I had a habit of teasing the winds of fate, but the winds were particularly strong-willed on this day. Unsure footing prompted a sudden fall and shards of milk-covered glass became airborne like a hundred arrows released simultaneously from an enormous bow. One became embedded deep in my left hand. Blood soon pooled with milk, and a river of pink fluid cascaded down the wooden steps away from the kitchen.
Sitting anxiously in the post-op recovery room with my mom, my left hand bandaged with several inches of gauze, I learned that, as bad as the accident was, it might have been much worse. The nerve that allows the hand muscles to contract was nearly severed. A fraction of a millimeter closer and my hand would have been paralyzed for life. The outcome still uncertain, I prayed with confidence.
Exercising Your Funny Bone
While my mom left the room to call my dad with the news, I turned to strike up a conversation with the young man who lay on a gurney beside me. Aside from a bandaged head, I noticed that his right hand and arm were atrophied. He had cerebral palsy. Learning of my accident, he assured me that I'd be fine. Before the nurse came in to wheel me to my room, he winked at me, made an eloquent reference to "spiritual muscles" (what some call inner resources), as he told me a joke, and then explained that exercising my funny bone would help me heal more quickly.
I simply smiled back at him. But the lesson stuck, and sure enough, laughter and optimism not only helped heal my hand but many other difficult situations looming on the horizon. A year later, I learned firsthand that spiritual muscles include more than just humor and optimism. Riding home from church early one winter morning, our car was hit head-on by a truck that had skidded on ice and snow into our lane. My father and two sisters lay unconscious, bleeding, perhaps dead. Shaken but uninjured, I ran for what seemed like miles in knee-deep snow to the nearest house to call the police and ambulance. With each breath of cool air, I found myself drawing upon the inner strength of courage and faith.
Later that day, in a tense hospital waiting room, perhaps by coincidence, I spotted a man with cerebral palsy walking toward the emergency room. Once again I reflected on these spiritual muscles, as I prayed for the lives of my family. Humor, patience, compassion, courage, curiosity, humbleness, forgiveness, faith, creativity, persistence, confidence, and love comprise a short list of the divine inner resources that are our best medicine for tough times. The muscles of the soul are the tools we use to help dismantle and remove the roadblocks of life. I know firsthand that these muscles transcend the obstacles we call stress.
Growing up under the roof of two alcoholic parents, I exercised my spiritual muscles (particularly faith and humor) regularly. I know they work! Like our physical muscles, these spiritual muscles need to be flexed, stretched, and moved against some form of resistance quite regularly to remain effective when confronting the problems we all encounter on the human journey. Ignored, they will never disappear completely but will certainly atrophy with disuse.
What Is Stress?
Experts in the field of stress management don't necessarily concur on what stress is exactly. It's a rather complex subject. One thing they do agree on is that, by and large, stress is a perception, an interpretation of an event or circumstance which ultimately is understood to be a threat. Perceptions, most likely produced by the ego, sound the stress alarm and we quickly move into a "fight-or-flight" survival mode. While the stress response -- the dynamics of human physiology that shunt blood to the arms and legs, increase breathing, and increase metabolism to do one thing: move -- may be ideal for threats of a physical nature, this response is totally inappropriate for all other kinds of stress.
Most of the threats we have today are not physical but mental, emotional, or spiritual. I venture to say that about 90 percent of perceived threats are of a spiritual nature, involving relationships, values, and purpose in life. This is all the more reason we need to exercise our soul-muscles to deal with the big and small challenges we encounter in life.
As a child, I sought refuge from the dissonance that alcoholic dysfunction can bring to a family. I found solace in two places: the wooded forest behind my house, where I went when I felt the need to be alone; and my grandmother's kitchen for those times I needed a trusting smile and a hug.
My grandmother was small in stature, but mighty in character. Well versed in Washington, D.C.'s high society, extremely well educated, and quite savvy with regard to life's complexities, she was sharp as an owl and as graceful as a hummingbird, particularly when it came to the use of the English language. She too, had encountered her share of stressors in life: the Depression, several miscarriages, the premature death of her husband, and immobilization due to two broken hips. Although a private person by nature, my grandmother would openly recount her stories to me -- with a little prodding. Through it all, she sailed through life quite gracefully. Anytime she saw a hint of distress in my eyes, she was quick to prepare me a plate of pastries and a glass of milk, saying, "Remember, honey: Stressed is desserts spelled backward."
How to Transform a Curse Into a Blessing
Following in her footsteps as a teacher, I have met scores of people -- students, workshop participants, and complete strangers -- whom I think of as everyday heroes; people who, by the grace of God, emerge from what can only be described as a trip to hell with dignity and aplomb. Their experiences (many of which are recounted in my book "Stressed is Desserts Spelled Backward") are testimonials to the use of inner resources and the remarkable human potential to deal with life's challenges in a way that promotes spiritual growth. Tiramisu, Crème Brulée, and New York Style Cheesecake may be the most popular desserts these days, but it's obvious to me that humor, patience, and faith are the ingredients we need to transform any curse into a blessing.
As we exercise and flex our spiritual muscles, we kiss the face of God. In an age of victimization, where whining about our problems has become the national pastime and calling a lawyer is the automatic reaction to an impending disaster, it is refreshing to note that there is an option: to let go of stress and move on gracefully, rather than play the recurring role of victim. More times than not, we can have our cake and eat it, too. And each time, the taste of dessert, after a long hard haul on the road of life, is sweet indeed.
About The Author
This article is excerpted with permission from Stressed Is Desserts Spelled Backward by Brian Luke Seaward, Ph.D., published by Conari Press, http://conari.com. The author has earned an international reputation as an accomplished teacher, consultant, lecturer, author, and mentor. He is also the author of Stand Like Mountain, Flow Like Water: Reflections on Stress and Human Spirituality and Managing Stress: A Creative Journal. He is the executive director of Inspiration Unlimited, a health promotion consulting firm in Boulder, Colorado. Visit his website at http://www.brianlukeseaward.net.