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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Beautifully Unbalanced

I’ve made progress. I used to compare myself with every airbrushed cover model, every long-haired laughing girl advertising Diet Coke or tampons, every beautiful girl at the mall smiling up at her adoring boyfriend. I don’t do that anymore- I’ve seen enough airbrush exposés to be a trifle cynical about beauty in advertising; I’ve felt beautiful when smiling at my own truly wonderful boyfriend.
A glimpse of my distorted reflection in a car door usually doesn’t send me into the tailspin of too-big nose/too-high forehead/too-flat eyebrows.  Of course, I’ve been examining and analyzing this face of mine for a long time. I’ve made peace with it. It’s quirky.

I don’t find it terribly difficult to ignore Cosmo when it tells me to “Get Gorgeous Now!” or Vogue when it demands that I get the latest look. But those other magazines–the ones with artfully arranged flowers or towering desserts on the front cover, with articles that gently and insistently urge me to ‘feel good now!’, ‘achieve your balance!’, ‘find your peace!’, ‘stop stressing!’– those are the magazines that send me into paroxysms of self-doubt.

Embrace your life! Live mindfully! Creatively! Live your best balanced life! … suddenly, I’m questioning every decision, berating myself for falling off the morning pages wagon, for not nurturing myself more, fretting about the lining of my stomach and what I’ll do when that ulcer finally shows up, and wondering why my life isn’t more consistently meaningful. More peaceful. More balanced.

I think the balanced life is yet another version of the myth of the woman who can do it all, the woman who is the perfect mother and the head of the company, the full time student/full time worker who also has a meticulously clean house and cooks healthy meals and takes long, peaceful walks with the dog… I think she’s a ghost, this immaculately-coiffed specter who makes elaborately decorated Easter cakes. She is the first wife to whom you will never measure up. She’s as much of a construct as the air-brushed celebrity. I don’t think she actually exists.

Oh, she exists for moments. I’ve been her for momentsWhen a beautiful pink tree literally takes my breath away… and there just happens to be fifteen extra minutes in schedule during which to stop and bask in the loveliness. The moments that reverberate with poetry; when my soul feels still, and calm, and I can take a deep, cleansing breath and love the minutae of my life and let my miseries all melt away.

The next day the tree is pale pink blur in the rear-view mirror as I scan for flashing blue lights.

Long, long ago, in a completely different stage of my life, I struggled with this exact thing in a rather different context. (Brace yourself, I’m going to quote a preacher.)  I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t always “on the mountaintop” (to put it in a Southern religious colloquialism). Why I didn’t always feel close to God, why my emotions were so horribly changeable. Every time I slipped, whenever I just wasn’t feeling it, I worried that all wasn’t as it should be. The preacher told me that you aren’t supposed to live on the mountaintop. The mountaintop exists to give you faith and comfort while you are in the valley.

I disagree heartily and fundamentally with 99.9% what he or any other preacher who has ever berated a sinner believes. But if you lift that sentiment- the ‘not living on the mountaintop’ idea- and transfer it, whole-cloth, to my current frustrations at not being able to live a peaceful, balanced life with any sort of continuity, it puts everything into perspective.

I don’t have to marvel at the pink trees every day. My kitchen will not be clean every day, I will not be creative and charming and confident every day. Those moments are extraordinary. Those are the mountaintops.

And some days I really just need to get to class already.

But the memory of those pink trees, even in my hectic, often-frustrating, and beautifully unbalanced life, provides a shimmering moment of poetry, of peace, of balance.

And that works for me.