I was talking recently with a friend who roasts coffee. He pointed out that the best coffees are grown under stress in poor soils at high altitudes. Yield is low but concentration and complexity are great. Valley-grown coffee from well-watered, fertile soils is the bulk crap that fills out low-end consumer coffees like Folgers.
The same is famously true of wine grapes. The best are grown in poor, rocky, badly-watered soils on vines that have been severely pruned. Bigger yields from happy vines produce bland, watery extract for the supermarket plonk.
A few months ago there was an interview in Tennis magazine with Toni Nadal, Rafael’s uncle and coach. He was asked about Rafa’s motivation and talked about deliberately creating stress in his training to toughen him up. “We practiced with some bad balls, bad court, bad bounces. So he learned. When something goes wrong for him, he doesn’t blame the court, the bounce or the strings. He always blame himself for not doing better. So now he’s a very tough person” (Jan/Feb 2009). I seem to remember reading something years ago about Penny Hardaway learning his superb handling of the basketball by playing on very bad dirt courts with terrible bounces. Father Earl Woods is renowned for training son Tiger’s focus by yelling at him, jingling keys and otherwise distracting him while he swung the golf club.
And of course, Michael Jackson ruled the world of pop music before flaming out. Would he have had that same drive and focus without the adversity of his childhood?
My friend was toying with names for this observation about the positive function of stress. I suggested the “Dune” theory, after Frank Herbert’s science fiction novels in which the desert people, the Fremen (modeled after 7th century Arabs), end up ruling the galaxy because of the superior toughness and intensity their hard, marginal lives have cultivated. Actually, much of Herbert’s oeuvre is devoted to exploring the effects of extreme stress and hardship on fully developing human potential. The same could be said of C.J. Cherryh’s Alliance-Union novels. More comically we could call it the “Star Trek” theory after all those times the Enterprise finds an idyllic world of contented people and Kirk violates the Prime Directive to destroy their stultifying happiness and liberate their full potential through exposure to healthy misery. Nothing new to ascetics from various traditions and pursuits about the idea that salvation comes through suffering, of course. No pain, no gain.
I’m struck sometimes by the bind that members of oppressed groups are in as they struggle for recognition. On the one hand the narrative of exceptionality nurtured in shared hardship is affirming and plausible. On the other hand, if what makes you special is your trials and challenges, what happens when those are overcome? Who will you be then? What will you think of your happy, complacent, drifting children?
My own happy, complacent tendency to drift attunes me awkwardly to this question. I admire the edge and drive of the hardlifers, but don’t envy their angst. The costs of this process seem acceptable with beans and fruit, not so much with people. It’s probably the rare human who thrives under extreme and arbitrary stress. You’ve got to be prepared for some waste and breakage if that’s your game. As any drill sergeant knows there is a system to toughening up a batch of slackers without ruining them, and even then there will be some loss. Often stress just beats us up and breaks us down.
It’s probably important that Rafa, Penny and Tiger were all otherwise well-loved and nurtured, and that the best coffee bushes and grape vines are tended with great care. Wouldn’t it just be too boring and stupid if it turned out yet again that the key is mindful moderation and balance?