That which does not kill but destroys does not really make us stronger.
But then what does make us stronger for real, for good?
In fact, one must begin by distinguishing acceptable stress from excessive stress. If an attack overwhelms our ability to defend ourselves, then the response, stress, is not efficacious and surpasses our tolerance level: it exceeds the upper range of our resilience. As in other complex animals, our autonomous nervous system, independent of our will, adapts to certain stressors in forcing us to flee or fight.
But when this stress is excessive because we are powerless against the cause, if for example our movements are hindered by reasons material or emotional, then we have no choice but to freeze in that helpless state, almost to accept it. It is the last hope for survival, the collapse of all action. At this point the animal either dies, or, if by some chance it survives, it may escape undamaged. But for us, humans, things are more complicated. If the danger does not recede, or if we feel it still present, our defenses stay frozen as at the moment of attack, in a kind of impotence. This is the essence of traumatic conditions: time stands still for those defensive elements of our psyche once they have been mobilized, we keep living in a chronic state of stress. Certainly, we try to adapt, but usually by all sorts of compensations and behaviors which are more or less unhealthy.
What about the stress our organism can handle?
In this case, the aphorism of Nietzsche holds good: this stress is beneficial and even necessary.
Adapting and struggling are so much a part of our DNA that in the long run, their absence would be deadly. This is true even on the cellular level: we actually benefit from a moderate stimulation of toxins and other stressors; our reparative mechanisms need to be stimulated, not nullified.
Physical exercise offers good example of this process, known as ‘hormesis’: for example, insufficient or excessive physical actions can bring on difficulties of oxygenation when we are out of shape. But the long-term benefits of exercise lead to higher resistance to fatigue or hypoxia. By analogy this pattern extends beyond the cellular level: intense physical activity will result in greater strength and endurance in muscular, hormonal and neurological systems. The advantages of stimulation by heat, cold, fasting, danger have been known for many ages ... up to a certain point our nervous system learns to extend its range of resilience. We know that the same is true for the cognitive faculties: our intelligence desperately needs stimuli in order to develop (and not the anesthesia administered by big and little screens!).
Our brain is even programmed to like effort, wanting, seeking, risk. Our greatest happiness is found not in the reward but in the expectation. This explains the cerebral dopamine circuit, the most pleasurable of neurotransmitters. We are not made for peaceful pleasure.
We are all victims of a form of impotence which we have been taught is ‘for our own good’
As children, at least at school, in our society, we have all been placed in a situation of powerlessness before adults, whom we perceive as threatening even when they are supposed to protect us. Our child’s brain can only think of this as a threat but we cannot deal with it, because we are programmed to trust those who are supposed to take care of us.
At that moment we had no defenses, and the consequent stress wound up in our bodies. We are then that much less resilient, our mobility hindered, our fight-or-flight responses blocked in the very depths of our psyche. Hormonal activity and immune responses are affected. This disorientation leads to chronic anxiety or aggression, or even cuts us off from these feelings. The list is long ... these ae the fruits of the modus operandi of our educational system. It conditions our bodies by means of fear for the benefit of society, and induces us to think ‘like teacher’.
The path toward strength has to pass, sooner or later, through an ‘unlearning’ of this powerlessness. At our deepest bodily level, we know that we aspire to live a strong and healthy life, and we hate those stratagems for survival which we have taught ourselves in order to ‘fit in.’ This primal aspiration, this élan vital is accessible, here and now, it will surface, it will break through everywhere in our body.
Nous y reviendrons.
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