Thinking about stress as an identity marker

Michel Foucault tells us that the end of the Victorian era marked a shift in how we view sexuality. Our sexual choice (same sex or opposite sex) became an identity marker (homosexual, heterosexual). Engaging in sex with another of your own gender became a marker of your entire being–your childhood, your present beliefs, everything–where as before it would have been viewed as a singular action. Sexuality became an identity marker.

A note on the difference between identity marker and individual action: an action is an action is an action–I read a book, I ate too much. An identity marker takes an action–possibly a habitual action–and turns that into a characteristic of the entire person. I am a nerd. I am a glutton.

Why is this important? Well, identity markers get imbued with all sorts of stereotypes that aren’t heaped on individual actions. The statement “I read a book” only informs you that I’m fortunate enough to be literate. It could be Dr. Seuss, it could be Michel Foucault, it could be Oprah’s latest favorite. The statement “she’s a nerd” or “she’s a bookworm” asserts that that action (reading of book) is not only habitual but it affects more than just that action. What does a nerd wear? What does a bookworm listen to? You might not be able to answer those questions correctly, but you have an image in your mind– a stereotype that is implicit in the identity marker but not in the individual action.

Take it one step further, if I say “I’m a nerd” or “I”m a bookworm,” I’m accepting that identity marker. I’m saying yes! this action (of reading a book) is really one that defines me.

Ok, back to Foucault. He says 

As defined by the ancient civil or canonical codes, sodomy was a category of forbidden acts; their perpetrator was nothing more than the juridical subject of them. The nineteenth-century homosexual became a personage, a past, a case history, and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life, a life form, and a morphology, with an indiscreet anatomy and possibly a mysterious physiology. Nothing that went into his total composition was unaffected by his sexuality…. It was consubstantial with him, less as a habitual sin than as a singular nature…. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species. (The History of Sexuality, Foucault, p. 43)

Basically, he’s just articulating the idea that we haven’t always assumed a person’s choice of sexual partner is a way to categorize them. The action (gay sex) was changed to an identity characteristic (lesbian/gay) which then was thought to explain or clarify that individual’s entire life.

I think the same move has been made to feelings of stress. Instead of experiencing moments of tension, or times when we have to “buckle down and get to it”, the  assertion of “being stressed” has become a characteristic of identity. 

I am stressed. You are stressed. He, she and it are stressed. We and they–yep, also feelin’ it.

Feeling it always. All the time. I go to bed stressed and I wake up stressed. I think about my to-do list while I’m making the bed, filling up my car and scratching  my dog’s belly. It’s always there–insistently reminding me of what I need to be doing.

But that’s a little ridiculous, isn’t it? Am I–are any of us– actually going to be working the entirety of our waking hours? I know–ideally: yes! otherwise I’ll never get it all done! Ohmygod (cue hyperventilation)–but honestly. Can you–can I–actually be researching while making coffee and feeding the pets? What about while driving to school? Or walking from the car to the library? Or from the library to class? Or any of the other five million little things that I’ll get done today that aren’t intrinsically linked to the projects that are pending? Not really.

So right there, I have at least two hours (likely quite a bit more) in my day that I can determine. I can be impotently stressed and tense, feel my stomach twist and kink the entire day, completely focused on getting to the library as quickly as possible (hurry-hurry-hurry-can’t get it all done)… or I can let it go, refuse to let stress be my primary identity marker this week, acknowledge that I’ll be spending a good 8 hours in the library today, during which I’ll have to focus…but that’s later and not right now. There’s no reason to allow stress to engulf my world in burning acid.

At least, that’s how I see it. 

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