Live in tension. Live intentionally.

A few days ago I was involved in a conversation where each person shared a phrase that has come up often in our lives, that carries a lot of our life philosophy in it. You guessed it, mine was “Live in tension. Live intentionally.”

I have come to realise that in some way or another there is always a level of tension in my life. The tension I live in has many different sources, some are easier to manage than others. (I want to just make a proviso here that I am not writing about living with chronic anxiety, PTSD and panic attacks. Please get professional help if that describes you.)

Sometimes this experience of tension can be related to choices I have to make. I have so many ideas but it is impossible to pursue them all. There are a number of people in my life with expectations of me that may conflict with my own priorities. There is only so much I can do with my time and resources. The degrees of tension and anxiety are related to the consequences of the choices I need to make. I can get overwhelmed by the pressures on me to go in different directions or increase the number of balls I am juggling. I feel stressed because I experience this as a pulling apart, a tautness – I am an elastic that is about to snap. This tension is evident in my body, tense shoulders, stiff neck, clenched jaw… I find myself literally snapping at those close to me as the breaking point comes closer. So, how can I respond meaningfully to this tension?

By living intentionally.

This starts with my awareness of what I am feeling – in my body, emotionally, spiritually. It means slowing down and asking myself what is underneath this tension – why am I feeling this way? Usually anxiety points me to something important I fear I am about to lose: Am I losing control of the situation? Could I potentially be losing a friend? Am I losing an image of who I think I am? Do I think I will lose a source of income? All these things can feel really threatening. My tension points me to how important these things have become in my life. How important are these things in the bigger picture? Do they line up with my core values, with my calling, with what I understand my design to be?  So I land up in a place where I can affirm again what the most important beliefs are at the centre of the universe I inhabit, what my worldview looks like…and moving out from there I can intentionally make a choice that is in line with this core.

So I come to the conclusion that periodic tension is actually good for me in that it helps me to rediscover and reaffirm my core beliefs and core identity.

Tension also helps me to grow, to develop those character traits that can only emerge in me when I am put to the test in some circumstance that seems unpleasant or unwelcome – character traits like patience, kindness and self-control which I can only practice in situations where impatience, unkindness and loss of self-control would be the easiest option.

In line with personal growth, I believe we need to consider the role of our imaginations in our anxieties too. Firstly, is what we fear actually physically happening or is it in our imaginations? Obviously, we will need to respond in different ways. One way may involve acting on our flight/fight response. Another may first involve some physical calming of that same response (more about that another day). Once I am past that, I find it a useful exercise to let myself imagine what life would look like if my fear became reality. This sounds counter-intuitive, but I am convinced that we tend to use our imaginations and creativity too little. I remember as a teenager sometimes being responsible for my siblings when my parents were out, and having the occasional experience of panic as I asked myself the question, “What if something dreadful happens…” I let my imagination go and pictured the worst-case scenario, and explored my possible responses. What could I do? What were my options? My resources? Who could I call if I needed help? I admit that it might not work for everyone, but I certainly realised that even in dire situations there could be a number of things I could do about them, which had the effect of calming me down.

So I have also found that temporary tension is good for me in terms of personal growth and growth in awareness of my resources. Working with anxious tension can be an integrating experience.

What are you learning from the tension in your life?


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