Dao Du Jour II, Day 13: Stress Test

Chapter 13: Shameless

“To be in favor or disgrace

is to live in fear.


Favor debases:

we fear to lose it,

fear to win it.

So to be in favor or disgrace

is to live in fear.”

~ Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)

Whatever your opinion of Tony Robbins, he made an insightful remark in an interview with Tim Ferriss: stress is what comfortable people call fear.

Fear, we sophisticated moderns tells ourselves, is something that happens to children and people in the Middle Ages. Charles Taylor offers a useful phrase to describe the shift from the Medieval to the Modern mindset: we move from the “porous self” to the “buffered self.” The porous self is constantly vulnerable to invasion from spirits good and bad (and, of course, plagues and pathogens), at the mercy of the forces of nature. The buffered self stands apart, autonomous, in control, choosing whether and how to engage the allegedly external world.

It’s easy to see why a buffered self would think itself—and think is the operative word here—above and beyond fear. “Stress” is something that happens to the foundations of a building, or the airframe of a plane, or a skeleton; it’s a physical business concerning weight, pressure, volume, density, and the like. Stress happens to bodies, not souls. By conjuring the spirit of stress, we sanitize our suffering.

Suffice it to say that the times have found us. From the internet to social media to the smart phone to climate change to the pandemic, the zeitgeist of the 21st century has unmasked the buffered self for the useful illusion that it always was. The Big Bad Wolf of the world has huffed and puffed and blown the house down. The buffered self failed the stress test of the last couple of decades.

Part of the story of classical liberalism, our modern philosophical anthropology and cultural DNA, is that we are independent individuals pursuing our own happiness. But the reality, as Rousseau understood, is that this just makes us more psychologically dependent on others—or rather, what we imagine others think of us. Favor becomes heaven, disgrace becomes hell. The steeper the scale of social and economic inequality, the more loudly and proudly the gospel of individualism will be proclaimed, and the more fear there will be of tumbling down the ladder into the pit of disgrace—for everyone, not just the bottom dwellers. Economist Richard Wilkinson has shown that counterintuitively, the higher a society’s level of inequality, the worse off the people at the top are in terms of well-being.

But if we drop the pretense that we are separate, that we secure, that we are actually adults, that we are just what Alan Watts called “skin-encapsulated egos”—that we are afraid—then we can rest at base reality. Favor de-bases in that it literally knocks us off base. We take the game too seriously. The irony is that even if you get a hit and round the bases without getting out, you end up in the same place: at home.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”

What Do You Think?