Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Defining stress

I tend to think of stress as a weakness.  Not only that, I think of stress as something that is in the head, something brought on by the sufferer.  It is a punishment, I assume, for being weak-minded and less of a person than other people, less able to stand up with grace in adversity.

Recently we put some plants into one of our gardens.  Here we are nearing the end of July, and on one of the very hottest Saturdays of the year, Shawn and I got up early, before the brunt of the heat, and planted three new hydrangeas that we found on clearance at Lowe's the previous evening.

Usually it seems that plants which have suffered neglect in the garden center at a big-chain-home-improvement-store must be tough.  Those that are still around, sitting on the clearance shelf as summer passes its peak, they have some survival power.  A plant purchased in early May, fresh from the greenhouse, preened and pruned and portioned with plenty of fertilizer to produce a burst of blossoms, this plant can do nothing but go downhill in my garden.  In my garden, it will have to gut out its existence in average soil, and compete for sun, and probably not be watered quite often enough.  But if I get a struggling survivor and release it from its pot, massage its cramped roots out of the root ball, give it a spot of its own with some sun and moisture, then it might actually thrive.

We planted these three hydrangeas around the water meter, because then if they get big, they will provide a screen around something unsightly.  That's my plan, my hope.

We planted them, and then we planted two other little plants I'd found: ajuga, I think they are called, but I am unfamiliar with the species.  As we worked, I decided I wanted to move some coral bells, dividing and spreading them around.  We worked as fast as we could, on the west side of the house while the sun was in the east and we had some shade.

Honestly, Shawn worked, and I stood by, determining where I wanted to position the holes, reaching in to arrange some dirt around some roots, showing Shawn with my hands where I wanted to divide the coral bells, feeling among the stems and leaves for spaces.  He worked hard, scooping roots from the earth, shoveling dirt and sweating, droplets of fluid dripping off his face.  I got surprisingly filthy for how little work I actually did.  After we placed all the plants into the ground, Shawn went around to the garage and retrieved a few bags of mulch, which he carried to the garden, split open and dumped out.  I spread the mulch around the plants after he had done all the work.  He lets me feel good about trying to be a help.

We finished before 10 a.m., which was a mercy because it was already stifling.  Coated with sweat and mud, we retreated to the air conditioning inside, desperate for iced tea and showers.

Later, sitting on the sun porch, we looked out the windows at our handiwork.  The sun, having climbed high in the sky, beat down hard on the new hydrangeas and the newly rearranged coral bells.  Although we had watered them generously, they looked miserable, droopy, inside-out.

The plants were stressed.  I realized, as I evaluated them, that stress is not "in the head."  Stress is a real thing that happens to something, be it a plant or a person.  Stress is when adverse conditions, real conditions, like heat or drought or displacement, cause a specimen to wilt.  Sorrow and loneliness and fear, these are real things that contribute to human stress, and they are not illusions, not pretend, not simply "in the head."  Nobody chooses to feel sorrowful or lonely or afraid.  These things come upon us when circumstances cause us to lose things we love or to be straddled with things that weigh us down, or (worst) both.

The worst thing you can do to a stressed person is to belittle his stress.  Telling him that he ought not be stressed does not lesson his burden; it only adds guilt and shame to the negative emotions already crushing him.  It's much better to offer some compassion, some understanding, to validate the pain and offer comfort and strategies for coping.  Would you withhold water from a stressed plant with the idea that the plant ought to be able to tough it out and buck up?  Of course not!  You would give it water in hopes that it would receive enough of what it needed to pull through the stress and begin to thrive again.  You should not be afraid of "spoiling" a stressed person by offering mercy and compassion.  Rather, you should pour out mercy and compassion in hopes that they will lead to comfort, healing, and eventual flourishing.

Stress does not always last.  With proper care, the effects of stress can be reversed.

I grow zinnias in my front yard.  Earlier this summer, I was thinning them, and as I pulled them out of the one spot, it occurred to me that I needed some colorful fill in another spot.  I'd pulled the extra flowers out crassly, taking little to no care.  Still, there were roots on the ends of them, so I carried them over and stuck them into the bare spot.  Literally, I stuck them into the ground and piled some chunks of clay soil around them to try to prop them up.  I dumped some water on them and hoped.

For a number of days, my transplants looked nauseated.  Their tops curled downward and their color went pale.  But they were still alive.  I kept watering them at intervals.

This is what they look like now:

I think it is a miracle.  It took so little: just the idea to stick them into the ground instead of into the garbage, and a few applications of water.  They overcame their stress and bloomed.

With some love and compassion, we can do the same for the stressed people in our lives.

"I'm sorry you are going through this," we can say.  Or, "I would be upset too, if that happened to me."  Or, "I love you.  I'm here for you.  I'll stay with you as long as you need me."

Just as stress is a real and powerful force of destruction, compassion is a real and powerful force for healing and restoration.  Compassion fills longings and frees souls.   Compassion can alleviate stress in a most miraculous way.

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