The following is a commentary with some thoughts on a book that I came across recently. That book, The Flinch (by Julien Smith), left a deep impression on me. It is freely available, and I urge you to take a look. It is also a relatively short read and takes just an hour or two.
The flinch is the primal protection mechanism that we all have. It occurs in the face of immediate danger and is composed of several distinct physiological events acting together. The muscles on our face contract, eyes tend to close, we often lift our hands in front of our bodies for protection, adrenaline rises (hence also heartbeat). The “flinch” response is what has kept us alive for thousands of generations during human evolution. It is interesting to note that we tend to flinch even at non-physical danger – the mere thought of something unpleasant or hard to accomplish, such as a difficult exam, tends to trigger the same physiological reactions within us, now called stress.
In the old times, when immediate danger was indeed a part of everyday life, these instantaneous changes in our bodies were quickly followed by the fight or flight response, where they were put to good use. For example, the increased adrenaline levels would lead to increase heart-beat, hence more blood pumping, necessary to deliver energy (oxygen) to all muscles and other tissues – necessary for running or fighting. The stress we experienced was preparation for a coordinated response.
Nowadays, not only is this stress caused by some intangible thoughts that represent danger that is either in the past or the future (hence by all definitions of reality – nonexistent), it just accumulates without having the opportunity to fulfil its function and be dissipated. Let’s take a typical example of an agitated driver in a traffic jam. You can see the same reactions as mentioned before – the red face, sweating, actions with the hands. But this stress has nowhere to go, the driver will most probably just feel those emotions and slowly at the end manage to get to work. The stress has not disappeared and the same hormones and substances injected into the blood flow continue to circulate throughout the day, eventually leading to the disease of the 21st century man – chronic stress.
These are the negative aspects of stress, which as mentioned before on the Alpha Road can be addressed with mindfulness training. In The Flinch it is suggested that there might be positive ones as well. We tend to live in an over-protected society (of course this applies mostly to western countries). It has never been easier to live life. There are almost no physical dangers, we have access to the fundamental needs such as shelter, food and clothing, together with medicine, education and recreation. One can drift through life comfortably without thinking. But here comes the problem.
The world does not work like that. There are always catastrophes and tragedies in every life, whether they are personal or societal. It is just a question of time before something unexpected and life-changing happens. Also society has changed. Even jobs that were deemed extremely secure, such as law and medicine, have people who have it hard to find a job. Gone is the world of hierarchy climbing, now everything changes in the matter of hours. And whoever is not prepared, is in danger.
We should put ourselves into stressful situations on purpose as much as possible. Whether this is finally writing that resignation letter, or e-mailing with an inquiry about that dream job, or starting out your own business around what you love, or simply talking to that girl at the party – we should understand the flinch, but still go through and act. In a situation where we would normally shy away and shrink, we should double our efforts and go in boldly. Because let’s face it – what do we have to lose? As many philosophers have asked, many of us are afraid of death and life at the same time.
By acting with courage during stress we train and prepare ourselves for whatever the circumstances can be. And it must be noted that very few of us will have to endure what our grandparents had to go through. We should be grateful for this and go after what we truly want with boldness and joy. We are finally fulfilling our true purpose and are not slaves to our emotions and circumstance. That is what it takes to be a master of one’s own life and to recover what we all have inside.