2019’s Been A G.A.S.: A Retrospective

A page from Buddha’s book: ‘all of existence, without exception, is transient, evanescent, inconstant’. Put a little more accessibly: change happens. As a Westerner, an old one at that, the idea of accepting, let alone embracing this concept is, shall we say, a little foreign to me. Stasis rules. Predictable, repetitive sameness is comforting, cultivated, sought after.

Back in the day, when sororities, service clubs, professional development day organizers would seek me out to fill in an evening on ‘timely topics’, stress was a favorite go to. I established a patter that seemed to meet the need. The tag line linked stress to change. More specifically, the more change experienced over short periods of time, the more ‘stressed’ we would feel.

Nothing original here. Hans Selye in the mid-last century formalized this connection and even gave it a name: General Adaptation Syndrome (aka, GAS). The give away ought to be that the process is a syndrome. The language that Selye attached to his three-stage sequence is equally disturbing: Stage 1 — Alarm, Stage 2 — Resistance, and Stage 3 — Exhaustion. In a nutshell, when confronted with a situation to which we must ‘adapt’, we are briefly taken aback (the ‘alarm’ is sounded). Then, if homeostasis and balance are not restored in short order, we mobilize our resources in efforts to return ourselves to that much treasured state of equilibrium, blissful equanimity. Essentially we burn the candle at both ends and tap reserves that may already be in short supply (we ‘resist’ this disorienting plight). Ultimately, we deplete the batteries and begin a relentless slide downhill into an ‘exhausted’ state. Depending on how long the struggle has continued, fatigue, burnout, chronic anxiety, and depression are the brass rings at the end of the ride.

Selye, at core a quite positive guy, was not beyond providing a silver lining to his gassy cloud. Pace ourselves, recognize when we’ve asked of ourselves a little too much adaptation over too little time. In short, chill — when we can. The catch: we don’t! Equally, the universe doesn’t always cooperate sending along the unavoidables. The next layer: change is a chameleon — a seductive little bugger, change dressed up as a desirable, the adaptation hook baited with the coveted.

So here’s the 2019 score. 321! Offspring of Dr. Selye’s treatises was a little inventory known by various names, most commonly the Life Change Scale. It dutifully attaches a ‘value’ to a range of adjustments we may encounter — or in fact, seek out. The ‘cut scores’ of 150 and 300 identify levels of risk of developing health issues, psychological and / or physical, attaching to cumulative ‘life change units’ collected over a year. Below 150, no worries; 150-300, pay attention; greater than 300, . . .

Last time I checked, I’m not in jail (63), I’m still married (73), Nicola’s way more alive than I am (100), and I still have a job (47), although the jury’s out on the last one as change in numbers of spousal arguments (35), related to excessive delays in retiring (45), may actually result in a saw-off. Not pregnant (40), son and daughter are well clear of home (29), done my best to avoid outstanding personal achievements (28), no plans to return to school and / or graduate (26), and happily have re-established a church connection (19). Evidently I dodged the heavy artillery. Or so one would think.

Ah but wait! Christmas (12), porting a mortgage (31), business readjustment (39), vacation (13), change in recreation (19) — can’t remember the last time I ‘recreated’, and change in living conditions (25) are just the ‘also rans’. The really, really big ticket, with all sorts of cling-ons, is . . . wait for it, MOVING! Drs. Holmes and Rahe, the savvy originators of said scale (1967 — that’s a year, not a score), attach a relatively modest weight of 20 to this particular life event. I don’t get that!

Which may, in fact, bring us full circle to another bit of Buddhist wisdom, embodied in a couple of the ‘four noble truths’. Dukkha, aka, suffering / pain is driven by our level of attachment. And relief (nirodha) is proportionate to letting go of said attachment. Hmm, that’s pretty out there!

Let’s simplify. And who better to provide very (very) grounded wisdom than the painfully irreverent comedian — and speaker of, let’s just say a ‘fifth noble truth’ — George Carlin. George’s riff on stuff (link below) says most, if not all of why a move is not. . . just a move. It brings us face to (uncomfortable) face with our attachments. The books, the clothes, the tools, the furniture, the mementos, the pictures . . . How is it possible to carry on without 4th year texts on concepts long past believable, the sport coat that is ‘still good’ (fashion be damned), a lifetime supply of Robertson head, 3/4” wood screws, day beds, saunas, couches, pennant collections, a 1967 UWO jacket (what is it about 1967?), fabric stashes, and photographs and photographs and photographs? George puts it succinctly: ‘our houses are our piles of stuff with a lid’. Hmm. And we are loath to open the hand and let it go.

And so a move is not just a ’20’. It is a confrontation, a challenging of a noble truth that fuels one of only four principles that drive our lives. It’s a leaving of an obsession, an acquisitiveness that has defined decades — just ask Marie Kondo!

So, as Nicola and I text each other from opposite sides of piles of boxes, as we search for the illusive location of the underwear drawer, know that progress is being made. I felt marginally superior and briefly satisfied following an encounter with a fellow resident in our new condo community who’d wandered into Storage Locker Room A in search of unused space — a year later and still unable to part with his library.