How much strength do you have in reserve? How much resilience to difficulty? When does a torrent of potential injury turn into actual harm? Where does resistance collapse into capitulation? Why are you weaker than I am or, conversely, why am I weaker than you? What insult makes us laugh or tips the scales into tears and decompensation?
The lucky among us face few true tests of these dimensions during our lives, but there are few of us who are lucky. It may even be that the lucky among us strive to feel stress just to feel, while the unlucky spend every waking minute trying to diminish the rain of blows life can mete out.
Stress and strain are as diverse a set of measures as any in the human experience. Physical stress, so well born by athletes, defeats those of us who have no particular capability to run, leap, pull, punch, throw, swat, jump, crunch, dive, dance, twirl or fly. Mental stress can often be born well by those with no physical ability at all and can bring down the most astonishing Olympian.
By analogy, the following diagram graphs stress against strain. A stress is administered to a system, whether an iron bar or a piece of plastic, a human bone or flesh, a mental grocery list or a math theorem. “Material,” whether synapse, bone or flesh, goes through elastic tests all the time. If the elasticity is exceeded, permanent deformation (or learning, to put it differently and more positively) can occur. However, lurking beyond deformation is permanent injury, fracture, capitulation.
The history of life on this planet – and in the universe at large – is one marked by stresses that have crushed some of us, while strengthening others, have imploded stars and created new galaxies, have taken some species to extinction while allowing others to multiply beyond numbering. We are all on the cusp of unendurable weakness, but we strive on.
We are all frail; what can you endure?