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March 14th, 2019
Exposure tends to breed tolerance. The more consistently a person lifts weights, the more weight that person can handle. The more consistently a person drinks alcohol, the more they seem to be able to drink. The fifth time trying to make it through a fast is much easier than the first.
Frustration on the other hand, or rather, the objects that inspire such a response do not necessarily seem to fall within this paradigm. If this were the case, we’d all be able to maintain the placid composure of an enlightened bodhisattva during times of stress and confusion.
Instead, it seems, our mind might be haphazardly gearing itself for another kind of tolerance, indeed, the exact opposite of what we want. Many people may in fact be priming themselves to exercise a response of frustration. Many of us can probably call to mind a person in our life that is so easily riled up by even the smallest things. A meaningless detail of the day doesn’t unfold according to some plan and the whole day is lost because of it.
A first thought about such subjects might find it puzzling that an adult, after years of living and dealing with the innumerable aggravations both large and small that befall us on a daily basis would train a person to be completely unsurprised and unconcerned by such trifles. The opposite seems to be the case.
One idea that may answer why, revolves around the simple reason that we as people merely want to feel something while we live. For many people life falls -unfortunately- into long spells of monotony and boredom. Most bullshit jobs do not really require any growth or present much challenge with regards to what a person is really capable of. We attempt to placate this dearth of utilized potential by bombarding ourselves with T.V. shows, medications, and vacations. As though these “reprieves” are functioning in the same way recovery time after a work out is healthy. We should ask the harder question: are these healthy reprieves? Or are they masking a deeper problem?
These modern tropes are trying to accomplish two emotional functions simultaneously: we are trying escape our usual feelings of eroding monotony and we are trying to replace them with something a bit more spicy and exciting, whether this be the gore-porn of Game of Thrones or the hot sun and jostling waves of a far away beach. Regardless, we are simply trying to feel something more intense than – the usual.
Frustration and it’s tendency to rile a person at an accelerating rate over the years may fit into this paradigm of simply wanting to feel something of substance and gravity. Of course any frustrated person will deny wanting to react in such ways, but this tension, this feeling of being trapped within a tense circumstance is part of the drama that helps one escape from the mundane facts of normal life.
We can think of sensationalist news and tabloids that function within society by broadcasting ridiculous and often negative stories. The clue about why these function is in the subject title: sensationalist. They hit the senses, creating a sensation that we feel, and just as all publicity is good publicity, we are geared to want to feel something, the larger the feeling the better – it doesn’t really seem to matter if that feeling is good or bad, though it’s clear, one is easier to find fodder for, and negative feelings are about as difficult to raise to a pitch as a weed left un-pulled.
Unfortunately this seems to be a bug that was once a useful feature. Back when survival was a fairly constant daily concern, being primed to recognize the (negative) threat in one’s own environment was very very useful. Indeed, evolution weeded out those who did not have this as a hardcoded program. But now, a donut offers far more danger to our health than some lurking predator, and this tendency to notice and focus on the negative finds itself in an environment where it has outlived its usefulness and now does us a great disservice. For how many is this tendency perpetually pulling us away from the present and the possibility of simply enjoying a moment breathing and being alive?
We can take a moment right now. Just a quick second, to think about how nice it actually is to be alive. Things could be far far worse, and yet here we are, after all that had to come before us to make it so that we would exist and experience this moment.
Our relationship to frustration progresses in the exact opposite direction of this ability to be present. Like the movies, the medications and the vacations, we always need more in order to out-do the last experience we had. The movies are flashier, gorier and more action-packed. The medication dosage ratchets higher, and the vacation has to have a new destination – preferably somewhere better than last time.
Frustration – for many people – follows the same trend. But instead of getting frustrated with bigger and more important topics, our reaction magnifies any chance it gets, which means that the ingredients required to provoke our frustration become more granular, until it takes almost nothing at all to spark a fire in our mind.
The only real solution is developing an ability to Pause – to foster a habit and a practice of mindfulness – which is really just an ability to step back within our own mind and notice what is happening on an emotional and intellectual level. This slowly, but surely turns the trend in the opposite direction. It turns a vicious cycle into a virtuous one, until we can stomach that old quote from Churchill without feeling a sense of embarrassment. As he once said:
A man is about as big as the things that make him upset.
This episode references Episode 23: Pause.