Some tension allows us to stand: too much pulls us apart. In between, small differences create high performance or enormous pain. We are not finely tuned machines, we human beings. We change moment by moment in unpredictable ways and the degree of stress that motivates us depends hugely on what we perceive as possible in one particular moment.
We have all heard stories of incredible feats achieved under incredible pressure. We know about the mother who saves a child through strength or endurance beyond anything that is normal. We know about the business pulled back from the brink of disaster by the entrepreneur whose passion outlasted all common sense. We know about disasters that create communities.
We know the other stories too. The stories of those who crumble when one more thing goes wrong. The stories of those who despair because an obstacle was just big enough to put something special forever out of reach. The stories of those who cannot live on the edge, waiting in hope and terror on the moment when everything is feared because nothing terrible has happened - yet.
Most of us do not go mad, or do not go obviously mad. Most of us do not despair conspicuously, although Thoreau noticed that "most men live lives of quiet desperation." He also noticed: "In the long run men hit only what they aim at. Therefore, though they should fail immediately, they had better aim at something high."
Each of us has to decide, not once but many times, whether it is better to fail at something high or to keep our desperation quiet. No one is immune from the strains and pain and struggle of the body under stress. No one is immune from jobs that require more, from communities that do not seem to see or to care, from injury to loved ones and injury by loved ones. Every new hurt gives us a moment in which to ask: "is this too much?" And in each moment, there is the chance that this new hurt, however small, changes everything.
Sometimes we are merely stubborn. We defy the stress by promising ourselves just one more moment, just one more step. And when we look up, we might as well look high.