Seeking Tension & The Strenuous Life

Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaningonce wrote:

“Mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become… What man actually needs is not a tensionless state, but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.”

We seek the tensionless state because we falsely believe that it will give us freedom and happiness. Once we arrive, we realize it’s not what we’re looking for at all.

Besides, you cannot stay in this tensionless state forever. Eventually, something outside of your control will kick you out of it, or you’ll subconsciously sabotage yourself so you can experience some tension again. But ideally, you intentionally and intelligently pull yourself out of it by striving towards a worthwhile goal.

Not all tension is the same. The tension applied to you by external forces (i.e., your boss) is not the same as tension built through intrinsic pursuits (building your own business). The more autonomy you exercise, the more satisfying this tension becomes.

Therefore, not all tension is good. One can exist in a high-tension state but not be striving towards a worthwhile goal—in which case the tension becomes stress.

Also, not all tension is avoidable. Life is full of struggle. Tension will come regardless of your intelligence, positioning, network, and decision-making. You don’t know what’s around the corner.

The Right Kind of Tension

Instead of trying to avoid tension, you should try to build your life around the right kind of tension.

Negative tension is tension that’s not aimed toward a particular goal. It’s the emotional argument you have with your spouse. A stressful workweek at a job you feel trapped in. A few days of bad sleep that make you exhausted.

Positive tension is aimed toward a worthwhile goal. It’s the tension you choose. Instead of a random argument with your spouse, it might be sitting down to have the conversation you know is important to move things forward and improve your relationship. It might be engaging with the stressful workweek knowing that it’s necessary to achieve the outcome you want. It might be neglecting sleep for a few days to push a big project forward that you’re passionate about.

Escaping the Tensionless State

You can’t avoid the atrophy that comes with a tensionless state, so you must remove yourself from it. The way to do that is straightforward but difficult.

The first step is to recognize that what got you into the tensionless state will not get you out. For most, the tensionless state grows out of indecision and comfort-seeking behaviour.

Any path worth pursuing will create some tension, which is uncomfortable. By nature you want to remain in stasis, and indecision is the tool your lower self uses to remain in the tensionless stasis.

Indecision is a form of overthinking. More thinking will not get you out of the tensionless state. Where has it gotten you so far?

It’s easy to remain stuck in mental paralysis when your head is in the clouds and you’re trying to ask questions like, “What should I do with my life?” or, “Which business should I commit the next 10 years of my life to?”

Building Momentum

The way out of this state is through movement. Momentum. Imperfect action.

You don’t need to figure out the “big goal” to create this momentum. Trying to do that will cause you to overthink. Instead, commit to the work that’s immediately in front of you. Organize your finances. Clean your house. Finish that essay.

Forcing yourself into this action-oriented state not only makes your life immediately better, it also changes the way you think.

When you’re in a state of motion, you think with confidence. You don’t get hung up as much. You’re forward-focused. You naturally think about what the next “big goal” might be, but you do so with confidence instead of paralyzing doubt and uncertainty.

Ramping up Commitment Threshold

As this momentum builds, it’s a good idea to ramp up your commitment threshold. It’s extremely difficult for someone who’s in a deep, dark pit of procrastination and inaction to commit to a 12-month project. But they might be able to commit to a single task (like cleaning the house) for 2 hours.

This chronic procrastinator might start with a commitment threshold of 2 hours, but they increase this over time. They decide to commit to something that takes 2 days. Then 2 weeks. Then 2 months. And so forth.

To increase your commitment threshold, aim for the edge. It should feel like a challenge to commit. If it’s too easy and you don’t need to think twice, then it’s not much of a commitment.

Acting on the edge of your commitment threshold naturally induces the tension that Frankl talks about. It’s a positive tension. You’re choosing to engage in the task.

The Satisfaction of the Strenuous Life

“Push back against the age as hard as it pushes against you.” 

—Flannery O’Connor

The tensionless life may appear attractive on the surface, but underneath it’s deeply unsatisfying. We want tension. We want strain. We want to live the strenuous life, as Roosevelt suggests we do:

“I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.” 

—Theodore Roosevelt

Brett and Kate McKay write in A Call for a New Strenuous Age:

From this philosophy was born a countercultural movement, one which meant to reassert the will, “revolt against the enervating banality of the age,” protest against excess softness, stultifying complacency, and bureaucratic boredom. Its aim was to revive a race of decisive, stoic, men who were strong in body, mind, and soul. Men who loved struggle more than comfort. Who desired boldness over blandness, who held a “fascination with a world beyond the boundaries of modern safety and routine.” Men who wished to choose initiative over self-indulgent passivity, independence over dependence, becoming over being, and the “elevation of strenuous effort over self-absorbed thought.” Men who would relish obstacles and eschew lopsided development in favor of cultivating the whole man.

Anyway, what’s the alternative to embracing the strenuous life?

After all, remaining in a tensionless, comfort-seeking state is paradoxically the least comfortable, highest-tension place to be. It kills the soul. It atrophies your mind and body. It is extremely dissatisfying.

Choose wisely.

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