One of the many rituals that we middle-aged and older folks go through is the so-called "stress test." The way our heart deals with that test, which involves an 8- to 12-minute treadmill journey and stick-on sensors connecting our body with all kinds of monitors, determines a doctor's assessment of our overall physical condition. Sometimes, it takes two days, including a second day of just monitoring the body, with more stick-ons, after a 24-hour period of normal activity. And in my case recently, it was two months between the actual stress test and the follow-up appointment with my doctor when we were to discuss the results of my stress test.
Gee — you don't think waiting two months to find out my stress test results could possibly cause any stress that wasn't originally present inside me, do you? Anyway, it's always a happy moment when one can say, "I passed the stress test!"
It's also sad and ironic how many stress-test failures there have really been through the years. Not just the human heart, but many other great tragedies we have witnessed, including bridge failures, hotel second-story interior walkways collapsing, and whole communities losing hundreds of buildings and lives via a tornado or hurricane, not to mention floods, earthquakes and tsunamis. And we will never forget the greatest stress-test failure this country has ever known: the 9/11 collapse of the World Trade Center's twin towers.
But there is no greater tragedy in this world than when human beings in their daily lives fail, not just the test of the heart, but also the stress test of emotional, mental and spiritual wellness. We often collapse under the weight and stress of our own hurt, as well as heart. So, how do we deal with the stress tests of life? I think we begin, first of all, by examining closely our own basic attitudes toward life. Some of us are hindered by a negative attitude toward life itself or toward other people or toward ourselves. I've often pondered the story of the middle-aged man who was seeing his mother off at an airport. She was going to visit some old friends. "Have a good time, Mother," the man said. To which Mother replied, "Now, John, you know perfectly well that I never enjoy having a good time!" Some of us know people like that who never enjoy having a good time. Many of us are often much more content worrying or endlessly hovering or micromanaging than just trying to constructively cope.
Of course, there are many people who have a remarkably positive attitude. They don't even know when they are in trouble — I suppose one can go too far in the other direction! A young traveling salesman was talking with a veteran salesman out on the road. "I'm afraid I'm not doing too well at this," said the younger man. "Every place I go I get rudely insulted!" "I'm sorry to hear that," said the old-timer. "In fact, I don't quite understand that. In my more than 40 years of traveling in sales, I've had my samples tossed out a window, I've been thrown out of homes bodily, I've been kicked down a set of stairs, and I've even been punched in the nose a few times. But maybe I've just been lucky — I've never ever really been insulted!" Life is largely a matter of attitude!
Oftentimes, it is adversity that brings out our basic attitude toward life for what it is. There are many people who, at the very slightest strain, collapse under it. Yet, there are others who grab adversity and kind of shine it up nicely and turn it into something worthwhile. Two articles appeared one day in a Knoxville, Tenn., newspaper. The first was a story about a boy who, after being jilted by his sweetheart, left a note on the Henley Bridge that said: "To whom it may concern: I am going to jump off this bridge because my people is all against me, and the only one I ever loved is mad at me, and I think this is the only way out!" And so, sadly, he jumped.
The other story was about a young Air Force corporal who, when his best girl broke up with him, wrote out of his heartache a song that became a popular hit and earned him $20,000. I would say he passed the stress test that time. Adversity can bring out our real attitudes about life.
In a future article, I would like to suggest the one major personality/character trait above all others that can help a person successfully pass life's average stress tests. And here's a clue: It can be important, though not exclusively, to have a sense of "being at home" and "belonging" in a church or synagogue/temple or mosque or spiritual cell group of one's choice in order to have the fullness of resources with which to pass the average stress tests of one's life.
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The Rev. Richard G. Parker is a retired American Baptist and United Methodist minister, and the coordinator of this column, "In The Spirit." He lives in Newburyport with his spouse, Karen, and may be reached at email@example.com.