I don’t like the word “stress”. It’s a Madison Avenue word. It’s something that can be cured with flavoured coffee and bath bubbles.
These words, spoken by the fictional President Josiah Bartlett, are – in my not-so-objective, The-West-Wing-obsessed opinion – one of the best encapsulations of how our society deals with stress.
We all know what it’s like to constantly have too much to do and too little time to do it. We’re constantly overworked, sleep-deprived, trying to catch our breath and fatigued. We live in a society that is overwhelmingly anxious and unhappy.
But perhaps what is more dangerous than all of that is our acceptance of these levels of stress as normal. Getting by on four hours of sleep and bucketfuls of coffee is something of a badge of honour in many circles. In a world where there are so many things to do, if you’re getting enough sleep, you’re probably just not doing enough. Or that’s what we’re encouraged to believe anyway.
Perhaps it’s the bravado which comes with being young and feeling like my body would function perfectly even if I were to feed it tupperware, but I’ve always been rather blasé about the potentially damaging effects of stress on my physical health. It’s only recently, though, that I’ve started to realise the toll stress can take on your spiritual health, if left unmanaged.
The last month or so, for me, has been rather stressful, with challenges presenting themselves in pretty much every aspect of my life. My immediate response was to respond to the problem(s) through a frenzy of action. Like so many of us, I neglected to acknowledge and manage the stress that these challenges were causing me because of an underlying belief that feeling that level of stress is just a part and parcel of adult life.
The turning point for me came a few days ago when I was catching up with one of my best friends. I’d been walking around for a week in a constant state of anxiety and was completely exhausted – physically, mentally and emotionally. My friend was dealing with a difficult problem too. There I sat, trying to offer advice and support but, try as I might, everything that came out of my mouth seemed to be anything but loving and supportive! Too emotionally drained myself, I was unable to muster the patience or clarity of thought needed to find the right words. My advice ended up being abrupt, cold and rather insensitively-worded.
And that’s when my mind was drawn back to the following words by ‘Abdu’l-Baha, on the importance of joyfulness:
I want you to be happy … to laugh, smile and rejoice in order that others may be made happy by you. The Promulgation of Universal Peace
Joy gives us wings! In times of joy our strength is more vital, our intellect keener, and our understanding less clouded. We seem better able to cope with the world and to find our sphere of usefulness. But when sadness visits us we become weak, our strength leaves us, our comprehension is dim and our intelligence veiled. The actualities of life seem to elude our grasp, the eyes of our spirits fail to discover the sacred mysteries, and we become even as dead beings. Paris Talks
Joyfulness is a virtue. When we are joyful, others are made joyful too. If we’re joyful, we’re better able to apply our skills and talents for the wellbeing of others. Joyfulness awakens us to the spiritual realities of our physical existences and draws us to a state of higher consciousness.
And like all other virtues, joyfulness is a habit that needs to be practised. It’s not a passive emotion of happiness that you feel in response to a life of ease and comfort but an attitude that you must mindfully exert in spite of your circumstances.
Stress is clearly affecting my spiritual health and, consequently, my ability to grow spiritually. Physically speaking, my body’s quite resilient (famous last words, anyone?) but my spirit’s inability to process the emotional tupperware that I inflict upon it has become quite apparent! And so I’ve resolved to stop accepting these unhealthy levels of stress as normal and as necessary to a full and meaningful life. I’ve resolved to practice joyfulness.
I’m going to begin with this approach to joyfulness, as attributed to ‘Abdu’l-Baha:
Unless one accepts dire vicissitudes, not with dull resignation, but with radiant acquiescence, one cannot attain … freedom. The Divine Art of Living
What about you? What are some of the ways you practise joyfulness in the face of life’s major stresses? Please feel free to share your favourite prayers and quotes – I’d love to hear from you!