On tragedy, stress and frustration tolerance.

I was already composing this post in my head yesterday, while reflecting on the thousands of women marching through the streets of Egypt, in outrage against the stripping and beating of a young woman by soldiers meant to serve and protect. I felt further driven to expound after my San Francisco-based friends started reporting today on the five-alarm fire that engulfed three buildings just a stone’s throw from where they lived.

And now in the latest installment of infuriating/frustrating/saddening news, the city of Christchurch, which last February saw major disruptions, damage and loss of life in the form of a massive earthquake, is being shaken up once again, just in time for the holidays.

As I attempt to transcribe while listening to the news, some salient facts are repeated: liquefaction in the backyards and driveways. 26,000 residents estimated without power. The main drive through town is closed off as it’s been declared a red zone. Basically more of the same crap the residents of New Zealand’s Canterbury region have had to put up with all year, at least on the part of those who’ve stayed as the city begins the laborious process of rebuilding. One resident being interviewed is making the best of things, saying the most important thing is to be with loved ones as she wipes away tears, shin-deep in muddy water.

It makes me all the more chagrined to think of the petty things I was concerned about earlier this week, the minor successes that I was tearing down out of impatience and dissatisfaction, and the ungrateful behavior I showed towards those who meant well. Some people, when they’re in pissy moods, react with bitterness when the only response they get is to be reminded of those who have significantly harsher circumstances to deal with. One could see it as a fascinating feature of the human psyche, if one didn’t greatly wish to punch the surly mood-haver (regardless of whether it’s yourself or another person).

To those dealing with events on a scale worthy of making the news should go the deepest sympathies and wishes for the cessation of violence and instability. To those of us fortunate enough to contend with largely internal or unarmed interpersonal conflict, I highly recommend familiarizing ourselves with the concept of “frustration tolerance“, here expertly explained by therapist Damon L. Jacobs (as part of a larger series on internalizing the lessons generally taught by attaining maturity).

Learning to manage one’s more hair-tearing ship-pitching bowel-disrupting emotions does not involve neglecting them; it involves setting more reasonable expectations in the first place, and when one still finds them thwarted, acknowledging that the one thing one can always take responsibility for is how one reacts to a situation. It may feel absolutely necessary or inevitable to vent one’s spleen sometimes, but if it doesn’t do anything to rectify the frustrating situation, and in fact just adds to the drama, why do so?

Considering the topics mentioned earlier in this post, it must be pointed out that sometimes an outcry is necessary: seeing a peaceful protester dragged through the streets, exposed and beaten with truncheons is a reasonable enough provocation to go out and raise a ruckus to bring attention to the injustice. A person who has just gotten their house assessed for seismic damage only to have further aftershocks send cracks further and deeper through its walls and foundation may choose to keep calm and carry on, though few would blame them for giving themselves over to a good cry. Simple displays of honest emotion suit such extreme backdrops. But too often, people don’t know how to manage their expectations or their emotions, and the neurochemical reaction can be volatile and out of proportion. Pepper spray, anyone?

A lot of this post may seem “like, duh” to some people, in which case, kudos to you for being a paragon of even temper since you first worried your mother by never bawling in your crib. A lot of self-help talk can seem simplistic, but I personally think it’s better to unpack and clarify the terms rather than rely on terse sloganeering. I’m not about to tell anyone “it gets better”, “fake it ’til you make it”, or whatever. What has helped me a great deal—as Jacobs has pointed out—has been having enough of a lifespan trailing out behind me to look back upon, reflect on situations similar to ones I face now, and determine whether I should react the way I once did or try a new tactic entirely.* I see my life as a movie reel and my job is to splice and arrange the pieces so as to set in motion, however flickering and uncertain, a vision that inspires and motivates me to continue. Sometimes I forget how much rich material I have to work with, but the more I rewind and review, the more I recall, and it does my heart good.

Once again, I wish the strongest luck and courage to those struggling against their governments, finding new homes or rebuilding their old, and also to those like myself who occasionally embarrass themselves with the sudden failure to cope with seemingly mundane events. We can only hope 2012 brings change of a life-renewing and sustainable sort.


*Just how does one get outside of one’s own head in order to think of a new tactic entirely? A subject for another post, I think.


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