“A man is forced to make impossible choices among those desires.”
Christopher Alexander, A Timeless Way of Building
My wife and I were recently reflecting on a problem. There is so much visiting and hosting that we would like to do, and so little time in which to do it. We started to feel stressed just thinking about it.
So my mind turned to the broader issue of stress in our lives today, and I remembered a remarkable passage in The Timeless Way of Building wherein Christopher Alexander writes about contexts that are intrinsically stress inducing. Why are some contexts—even including architectural patterns—stress-inducing? Because they put fundamental goods of our life in unhealthy and often unnecessary competition with one another.
It was as though a light-bulb went off in my head. Often precious goods in our lives are forced into at least seemingly irreconcilable opposition. And we experience great stress.
One of Alexander’s powerful examples is the location of a man’s place of employment. Usually geographically remote from his home, the location of his work creates an inner tension between work-time and home-time, when it need not have been so.
It seems to me that there are many other examples of such stress-inducing contexts that have become common today—so common that we assume that they represent the ‘ordinary’ stress of human life. Of course there is a certain amount of ordinary stress that comes of unavoidable collisions of things we naturally desire. For instance, travelling to see relatives will always involve a trade-off between the good of being at home and the good of seeing family.
But then again, this very example points to how the contexts that we construct in society by a whole matrix of decisions we have made as a community and as individuals can greatly, and often unnaturally, amplify such causes of stress. It used to be that relatives tended to live near one another. As a society, we do not put a premium on such proximity, but rather on other things, and so a whole set of entrenched factors militate against being near our relatives.
So now the stress of separation from family and the neighbors we grew up with has become a normal part of our lives. And at times it is a significant, painful, normal part of our lives.
Please understand: my point here is not to make a comparison of stress in the ‘old days’ versus stress now. If I were doing so, then someone might point out: “Weren’t there some stresses then we don’t have now?” The answer of course would be affirmative. But this is a distraction from the point at hand. I propose that we take an honest look at stress-inducing contexts in our lives today, and then ask what we can reasonably do about them. Some of these contexts can be very individualized and even self-caused. The ones in which I am interested now are the ones that tend to be endemic to the common patterns of living today. A list might include breakdown of community, disconnection from the earth, isolation from family, travel and traffic, the pres of instant and constant communication, centrifugal forces in the home, lack of silence, multitudes of bills, sequestering of the elderly, anonymity and depersonalization in market and business contexts, to name a few.
The point is not to carp or dwell on problems. It seems to me, on the contrary, that recognizing the reasons for certain common stresses can be very freeing—simply in the realization of the problem, and in the realization that we are not alone or necessarily at fault. But even more, to recognize such contexts for what they are opens at least the possibility of our addressing the problems, and ameliorating if not removing their negative effects.
Over the next few weeks I plan to reflect upon specific, common stress-inducing causes and contexts. If there are any that come to your mind, which you might want to be considered in this series, do not hesitate to use the ‘contact’ button to send me a suggestion.
Christopher Alexander (1936–) was born in Austria and is currently an emeritus professor of architecture at the University of California, where he taught for almost forty years. He has been widely influential through his theories of architecture, and is especially known for his 1977 book A Pattern Language. You can click on his name in the “Tag Cloud” on my home page, or here, to find other Wednesday quotes from him.