Stress

Our society is obsessed with stress.

We were at a wedding the other day, and among the usual pleasantries of such an event, a lot of advice was doled out. I sometimes shoot weddings so I have been to quite a number of them and heard quite a number of speeches – which similar content. Especially the officiating state employee’s recommendations are usually well-intended, if somewhat predictable: Talk to each other, make time for one another. This time seemed no different: As the vows were taken and the couple exchanged their rings, the state official looked around the room and mentioned the importance of love and partnership. Particularly now, since these were “hectic and fast-moving times”.

The wedding, of course, was all but hectic and fast-moving. Stretching across a long afternoon and lasting deep into the night, it took ample time. All the while, I kept on thinking back to that official so overwhelmed by the fast pace that she had to mention it during the ceremony.

Where does the sentiment come from? There has never been an age in which people have had so much free time, an age which granted us so many days of vacation and contained so many amenities eliminating tedious, time-consuming tasks. They enable us to do other, often time-consuming activities: Hours of TV are watched each day. Meetings are commonly understood to last too long. And in the city I see countless people in conversation, never looking at their watches. If they are wearing one at all.

The next day, as we drove back from the wedding to Berlin, we passed a number of large billboards. Many featured messages suggested that we relax and take some time off from the hectic lives they were leading. Needless to say, each of them also hinted that we should purchase such serenity in the form of shower gels (“Relax!”) and vacations (“Escape!”). The marketing for both was based on the assumption that our everyday lives afford no breathing room, that only by taking a deliberate timeout, could we briefly achieve relaxation.

The official at the wedding was preaching to the choir: There seems to be a widely-held belief that the times are stressful, that we are all operating at the limits of our ability, barely squeezing our days into unforgiving 24 hour timeframe they consist of. Why else would energy drinks promise to extend our ability to work hard, to meet those ever-looming deadlines? Even relaxation is scheduled, since the illusion of the ever so hectic life might make it impossible. Having time to relax means you have nothing else to do – and who is willing to admit that?

No wonder our society is obsessed with stress. Constantly thinking about it, talking about it and reaffirming to each other just how fast the times are must bring about up exactly the stress so many people are (breathlessly) trying to run away from.