My jaw has been hurting lately. The pain is occasional and there’s no physical explanation for it. Still, it arrives at the most unexpected — and inconvenient — times.
I’m listening to the car radio when it begins its familiar tap dance. Traffic is as snarled as a little girl’s long tresses, and on a day that my schedule is jam-packed. (But what day isn’t?) The windowless white van ahead of me, the same one that cut me off a few minutes earlier, is taking its sweet time chugging along the two-lane road. Frustrated, I lean on my horn, a futile act that does nothing more than block the deep, soothing voice wafting from the car speakers.
I breathe in. I breathe out. I force myself to relax, to listen.
The National Public Radio story is about stress, about how it takes a toll on health and family, how it is an inextricable part of our daily lives. Hear, hear, I say aloud. I suddenly realize I’m clamping down on my teeth hard, real hard. A rasping sound echoes inside my head. My jaw is bearing the heavy pressure of mundane worries, and the pain is its way of telling me to stop. Right. Now.
Hey, stress, dear friend, welcome back.
I’m hardly alone at feeling wigged out. I cannot think of a single person — friend or acquaintance, young or old — who hasn’t succumbed to tension and strain, to that overwhelming sense of having too much, way too much on one’s plate. At a time when the pressure to do more with less is commonplace, stress has become our most faithful companion. Gripping our hand. Controlling our thoughts. Robbing our sleep.
An expert on the radio says that when you take into account everyday stressors, the percentage of stressed out Americans is actually higher than most people think. I agree. The stress that causes me to clamp my jaw and grind my teeth is the garden variety kind. Really, I have a good life, minimal worries.
And yet, that morning I shot up in bed at 4:37 a.m., my thoughts racing at Usain Bolt speed. As I staggered to get dressed, a long list of duties and appointments thumped a steady beat on my forehead. There was no slack in my schedule, no quiet moment to catch my breath. Not if I wanted to scratch off items from my eternally optimistic “to do” list.
I know better. We all do, but we’ve been brainwashed to think that if we’re not busy every dang second of the day, we are wasting away. If the compulsion of productivity is as American as a Fourth of July hotdog eating contest, so is the emotional indigestion that comes with it. Too many of us get stuck in the hamster wheel of a 24/7 life, in an anxious sprint that never ends. Consider this all too common exchange.
“How are you?”
“Busy. How about you?”
Everyone of us has spoken a variation of those words. That’s because in modernspeak, busy is admired. Busy translates into going places. Busy means important. Busy equals indispensable.
More than anything, busy gives us an addictive high. And a pain in the jaw.
When the white van finally turns, I’m tempted to lower the window and give the driver a piece of my mind. That’s too Miami, I chide myself, and speed past.
I breathe in. I breathe out. I open my mouth wide enough so my teeth are no longer battling each other in a fight to the death, and I relax my jaw.
It’s not a smile, exactly, but it’s a start.