How to React to Stress
Two young boys were raised by an alcoholic father. As they grew older, they moved away from that broken home, each going his own way in the world. Several years later, they happened to be interviewed separately by a psychologist who was analyzing the effects of drunkenness on children in broken homes. His research revealed that the two men were strikingly different from each other. One was a clean-living teetotaler; the other, a hopeless drunk like his father. The psychologist asked each of them why he developed the way he did, and each gave an identical answer, “What else would you expect when you have a father like mine?”
That story was revealed by Dr. Hans Selye, internationally renowned Canadian physician and scientist known as the father of stress. A medical pioneer, he devoted the majority of his years to the exploration of biological stress. And he related the story of the two sons of the drunken father in an article for New Realities.
And the story demonstrates a cardinal rule implicit in stress, health, and human behavior. According to R. H. Schuller, “It is not what happens to you in life that makes the difference. It is how you react to each circumstance you encounter that determines the result. Every human being in the same situation has the possibilities of choosing how he will react – either positively or negatively.”
Thus, stress is not necessarily caused by stressor agents; rather, it is caused by the way stressor agents are perceived, interpreted, or appraised in each individual case. Outside events and people upset some more than others, because they are looked upon and dealt with in entirely different ways. The stressors may even be the same in each case, yet the reaction will almost always be different in different people.
Armed with that kind of information, it would seem that we can greatly improve our reactions to stressful situations. We can actually prevent stress from negatively affecting our lives. What seems to be a cruel world to one person might be filled with challenge and opportunity to another. It is our reaction that makes the difference.
The Devil’s Wedge
Are you familiar with the old fable about the devil’s sale? It’s interesting. And like most old fables, it has a moral that’s worth thinking about. The story goes that Satan was having a sale of his wares. There on display and offered for sale were the rapier of jealousy, the dagger of fear, and the strangling noose of hatred, each with its own high price. But standing alone on a purple pedestal, gleaming in the light was a worn and battered wedge. This was the devil’s most prized possession. For with it alone, he could stay in business, and this was not for sale. It was the wedge of discouragement.
The devil prizes the wedge of discouragement above all else because of its enfeebling, demoralizing effect. Hatred, fear, or jealousy may lead an immature person to act unwisely, to fight or run or grab, but at least he acts. Discouragement, on the other hand, harms more than any of these – it causes you to sit down, pity yourself, and do nothing.
This doesn’t have to happen, but unfortunately it all too frequently does. Not until we realize that discouragement is often a form of self-pity do we begin to take stock of ourselves and our predicament and decide to act, to do something that would take us out of an unpleasant situation. The answer to discouragement, to self-pity, then, is intelligent action.
The billionaire and founder of Combined Insurance Company, W. Clement Stone, formed the habit in the early days of his career of saying, “That’s good!” whenever anything happened, good or bad. Most of the time, of course, it was something good. But even when he learned of a near calamity, a deadly serious situation that would have sent a lesser man scurrying for cover, he smiled and said, “That’s good.” Then as his associates shook their heads in resigned disbelief, he’d tear headlong into the problem and find what was good in it. Invariably, some elements in the situation could be turned to advantage, and he would find them and, more importantly, act on them.
Everyone has days or even successions of days when nothing seems to go right. Yet if we understand that something good can usually be grounded in almost any situation, we’ll go quietly, efficiently to work on the most important part of the problem, the one that can be turned to advantage. Self-pity or inactivity cannot possibly help the situation. The only rational course to follow is to re-evaluate and move forward.
Some of the most successful have at one time or another been forced by a stretch of poor productivity to analyze their methods and use of time. Now a dry spell is no fun for anyone, but it’s often the only situation extreme enough to get us to look at ourselves – to find out that what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and what it is – is the best possible way it can be done. As Emerson said, “When a man is pushed, tormented, defeated … he has a chance to learn something.”
Here’s something else to think about: Discouragement very often comes on the heels of crisis. And it’s been said that crises are thoroughfares; we can go either way, up or down. We go up out of a crisis by doing something constructive; we go down by wallowing around in our problems and feeling sorry for ourselves. Discouragement, which comes to all of us sooner or later, is a test of nature. Those who refuse to yield to it, in time pass through discouragement to the smooth and sunlit seas beyond. And what once seemed to be a storm with such voracity that it blotted out the whole world is soon forgotten.
Whenever you face discouragement, try to keep in mind three vitally important points. First, discouragement is often a form of self-pity, an expensive emotion we can get along very well without. And the most effective antidote for self-pity is intelligent action. Next, within any discouraging situation, there’s almost always lurking an opportunity for growth, maturity, and future success. There’s something good about it. And, finally, discouragement should be kept in its proper perspective. What may at the moment seem like the end of the world won’t seem so important in 10 days or won’t be very important in 10 months. Take the long-range view and you can’t be defeated by momentary setbacks. The Chinese have a saying that if you live with a disaster for three years, it will turn into a blessing.
Being human qualifies us for some occasional pressure by the wedge of discouragement, but we have within us the strength to pull away and use it to our advantage. The next time you’re tempted to feel discouraged about something, try taking the attitude of W. Clement Stone. Simply say, “That’s good,” and then start finding out what is good about it.
A Commitment to Laughter
One of the enriching blessings of growing older all the time is that it has a way of improving one’s sense of humor – or at least it should. The person without a good sense of humor is a person to avoid as though he were a known carrier of the plague.
Horace Walpole once said, “I have never yet seen or heard anything serious that was not ridiculous.” And Samuel Butler said, “The one serious conviction that a man should have is that nothing is to be taken seriously.” It has been said that seriousness is the only refuge of the shallow. Oscar Wilde said, “It is a curious fact that the worst work is always done with the best intentions, and that people are never so trivial as when they take themselves very seriously.”
I remember that when I was in the service, one of the toughest jobs I had was to keep from laughing at the wrong times – during an admiral’s inspection, for example. There is nothing funnier than the seriousness of the military, especially high-ranking military. The fancy costumes, the panoply, the shining sabers, the serious faces – it was all, to me, hilariously funny.
We can be serious about situations. When a youngster is ill or hurt, or someone insults your spouse, you can get very serious about the situation in a hurry. But that’s not taking ourselves seriously. That’s different.
The thing that bothered me about Hemingway, as much as I admired his work, was that I thought he tended to take himself too seriously. He didn’t seem to be able to laugh at himself. And I think he suffered from this flaw in his character.
I have found it a good rule of thumb to be slightly suspicious of anyone who takes himself too seriously. There’s usually something fishy there someplace. I think this is why we love children so much: Life is a game to them. They will do their best at whatever work is given them, but they never seem to lose their ebullient sense of humor; there is always a sparkle of humor in their eyes. When a child lacks this, he is usually in need of help.
Dictators are famous for their lack of humor. The mark of a cruel person is that he doesn’t seem to be able to see anything funny in the world. And, a sense of humor was what was so great about Mark Twain. No matter how serious the subject, he could find the humor in it and bring it out. All the great comedians have this ability to see what’s funny in the so-called serious situation. They can poke fun at themselves. There are those who believe that a sense of humor is the only thing that has kept the human race from totally extinguishing itself.
People who are emotionally healthy, with a sense of proportion, are cheerful people. They tend to look upon the bright side of things and see a lot of humor in their daily lives. They’re not Pollyanna’s – they know what’s going on and that a lot of it’s not at all funny – but they don’t permit the dark side of things to dominate their lives. To my mind, when a person lacks a sense of humor, there’s something pretty seriously wrong with him.
Samuel Butler said, “A sense of humor keen enough to show a man his own absurdities as well as those of other people will keep a man from the commission of all sins, or nearly all, save those that are worth committing.”
It took a sense of humor to write that, and only people with blank spaces where their senses of humor should be will find it offensive. There’s something so healthy about laughter, especially when it’s directed at ourselves.
There are times for all of us when all the laughter seems to be gone, but we should not permit these periods to last too long. When we’ve lost our sense of humor, there isn’t very much left. We become ridiculous. We must then go to war against the whole world, and that’s a war we cannot win.
Falling Isn’t Failing
Mary Pickford used to say, “Don’t look at the sudden loss of a habit, or a way of life, as the end of the road; see it instead as only a bend in the road that will open up all sorts of interesting possibilities and new experiences. After all, you’ve seen the scenery on the old road for so long, and you obviously no longer like it.”
The breaking of a long-time habit does seem like the end of the road at the time – the complete cessation of enjoyment. Suddenly dropping the habit so fills our minds with the desire for the old habitual way that, for a while, it seems there will no longer be any peace, any sort of enjoyment. But that’s not true. New habits form in a surprisingly short time, and a whole new world opens up to us.
For those who have tried repeatedly to break a habit of some kind, only to repeatedly fail, Mary Pickford said, “Falling is not failing, unless you fail to get up.” Most people who finally win the battle over a habit have done so only after repeated failures.
I remember in Arthur Miller’s play The Price, the father lost everything during the stock market crash of 1929 and, for the rest of his life, sat in a room in the attic of a relative. That’s failing. It seems some people lack the stamina, the energy, to do it all over again or to make a new start. For them, it’s just the end of the road, and they’ve come to a full stop. Many lead such superficial lives, have so little depth of mind and spirit, that the sudden loss of income or material things is too much for them, and they jump out a window or retreat into insanity.
So if you’ve been trying to start in a new direction, you might do well to remember the advice of Mary Pickford: It isn’t the end of the road; it’s just a bend in the road. And falling isn’t failing, unless you don’t get up.
A successful life is built on the foundation of successful tasks – each completed in the pursuit of perfection – one day at a time.
A goal sometimes seems so far off and our progress often appears to be so painfully slow that we have a tendency to lose heart. It sometimes seems we’ll never make the grade. We come close to giving up – falling back into old habits, which, while they may be comfortable, lead to nowhere. Well, there’s a way to overcome this inevitable barrier to success, and here is the secret: Every great achievement is nothing more than the collection of smaller achievements done to perfection. Even the “impossible” has been accomplished through the relentless pursuit of success, one day at a time.
Have you ever seen a bricklayer starting a new building by putting the first brick in place? You are struck by the size of the job he has ahead of him. But one day, almost before you realize it, he’s finished. All the thousands of bricks are in place, each one vital to the finished structure, each one sharing its portion of the load. How did he do it? Simple, one brick at a time. And so is the pursuit of success and greatness.
A lifetime is composed of days, strung together into weeks, months, and years. A successful life is nothing more than a lot of successful days put together. As such, every day counts.
Just as a stone mason can put only one stone in place at a time, you can live only one day at a time. And it’s the way in which these stones are placed that will determine the beauty, the strength of the tower. If each stone is successfully placed – with care and quality – the tower will be a success. If, on the other hand, they’re put down in a hit-or-miss fashion – irrespective of quality – the whole tower is in danger. Seems simple. Yet, how many people do you know who live like this – focused on “just getting through” each day instead of on the “success” of each day. Which are you focused on?