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Troy DuFrene
Troy DuFrene

Two Boats and a Helicopter: Thoughts on Stress Management

I think about this joke a lot more than I wish I did.

Hold this thought gently as you read on: Despite centuries of science, technology, and evolution; regardless of the miracles of medicine, psychology, and social development; irrespective of progress in all its forms, how you feel today probably has as much to do with whether the sun came out as anything else.

Okay, continue.

An old joke has stuck with me since I heard it, what? Twenty-five years ago, now? It goes like this:

A storm descends on a small town, and the downpour soon turns into a flood. As the waters rise, the local preacher kneels in prayer on the church porch, surrounded by water. By and by, one of the townsfolk comes up the street in a canoe.

"Better get in, Preacher. The waters are rising fast."

"No," says the preacher. "I have faith in the Lord. He will save me."

Still the waters rise. Now the preacher is up on the balcony, wringing his hands in supplication, when another guy zips up in a motorboat.

"Come on, Preacher. We need to get you out of here. The levee's gonna break any minute."

Once again, the preacher is unmoved. "I shall remain. The Lord will see me through."

After a while the levee breaks, and the flood rushes over the church until only the steeple remains above water. The preacher is up there, clinging to the cross, when a helicopter descends out of the clouds, and a state trooper calls down to him through a megaphone.

"Grab the ladder, Preacher. This is your last chance."

Once again, the preacher insists the Lord will deliver him.

And, predictably, he drowns.

A pious man, the preacher goes to heaven. After a while he gets an interview with God, and he asks the Almighty, "Lord, I had unwavering faith in you. Why didn't you deliver me from that flood?"

God shakes his head. "What did you want from me? I sent you two boats and a helicopter."

Frankly, I think about this joke a lot more than I wish I did. This is, I suspect, because I have never fully absorbed the lesson it has to teach me. The joke popped into my head this morning as I read an opinion piece in the Christian Science Monitor about life in Finland.

Helsinki is rather dull, the article's author, Trevor Corson, reports, and this is how the Finns like it. In exchange for the security of things like free health care and education, the Finns are apparently content to forgo many of the first-world luxuries that living life in the Rat Race affords us Americans. Also, the article reports, most Finns decamp the cities for austere cottages in the woods for five weeks each summer, where they life simpler still.

Granted, the author does mention that depression and alcoholism are endemic in Finland, and many Finns report low self-esteem. And the rate of adult suicide in Finland is about twice that of the US. But remember what I wrote earlier, about the sun? Note that, in some spots in Finland, the sun doesn't rise at all for 51 days each year.

This article was in my head when I stepped out of the shower to find my wife on the couch, covered in our two pugs, reading Frank Lipman's book Spent. Now, I haven't so much as opened Lipman's book, so I won't say anything about it. His publisher reports that in the book, Lipman "identifies the things in modern life that lead to energy depletion, such as stress, light deprivation [Ha ha! That explains the Finns' predicament!--TD], an erratic sleep schedule, and a diet high in sugar and processed foods."

Folding the book in her lap, my wife wondered aloud whether she might be addicted to sugar. I wondered whether her 12-hour workdays and the restless Blackberry she keeps as a pet might be more central to the problem.

"What about Finland?" I asked her, and I related Corson's Op-Ed piece.

"When do we leave?" she asked.

We shared a nervous laugh. And then we both went off to work.

What was I thinking about on the way to the office? The-preacher-in-the-flood joke, of course. I imagined myself, heart sprung like a cheap watch, across the table from God:

"What's with the heart attack?" I demand.

"What did you want from me?" He replies. "I sent you yoga, Buddhism, Wordsworth, mindfulness practice, road cycling, progressive relaxation, Brahms, acceptance and commitment therapy, Monet, children's laughter, sunsets...[He talks for a really long time]...and even that damned article about life in Finland."

I get the feeling that I missed my canoe a long time ago, and I waved away my motorboat too. I'm holding out hope for the helicopter, but we'll just have to wait and see.

It's pretty obvious that knowing what's good for us isn't terribly helpful. Ever meet a person with a substance use disorder who didn't know he needed to quit drinking? An agoraphobic who didn't know he needed to leave the house? A 60-hour-a-week business man or woman who didn't, at a very intimate level, know that each evening ended in a sunset — and that the cost of missing five (or more) of them a week was going to be very, very dear?

Frankly, as a self-help writer, this poverty of knowledge leaves me feeling not a little disingenuous. I feel like I should be writing just one very short book: "You remember all those things we've already said? Do that."

As a guy fumbling for change, though, recognizing the poverty of knowledge gives me a little hope. I'm getting comfortable with the fact that, try as I might, I'm not going to be able to read everything, absorb everything, figure everything (or anything) out. Instead, I'm going to try slowing down enough to be able to hear that voice calling to me through the megaphone from above.

And with that, I'll leave you. From my desk, it looks like the sun has come out. Finally.

About the Author
Troy DuFrene

Troy DuFrene is a writer and editor specializing in psychology, food, and travel.

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