Friendly Fire: In Defense of Stress: Or: How I learned to keep worrying and despise the Flow Jam

Posted by Brendan James

*Editor's Note: Given the number of responses from members or supporters of Fight Club and the Flow Jam project, we would like to make it known that anyone may submit a reply to this (or any) article for the Letters to the Editor section by emailing

As I drifted through the spiritualist swamp that overtook Case Center on the first day of Skidmore's new-age festival, Flow Jam, the first words to surface in my mind came from Edna St. Vincent Millay's imperishable poem, "Renascence":

"Ah, awful weight!" she groans. "Infinity pressed down upon the finite me!"

This week, "Infinity," in its various crystal, liquid and tablet forms, is weighing heavily on our finite campus. Flow Jam's sponsor, the college's student mediation club, is hosting nightly seminars on miracles, chi, and transcendence, and the SGA Speakers Bureau has contributed $1,500 to a lecture on the topic of "mind-body-spirit healing." Last week, in this space, Rick Chrisman, Skidmore News columnist and Director of Religious and Spiritual Life, penned a battle hymn for the war against bad vibes.

Rest (rest!) assured, Flow Jam is here to dissolve our anxiety, our darker thoughts, our sense of struggle – in other words, what makes us young and alive. As chief organizer Chris Lord '12 put it: "It's about learning how to eliminate stress, and becoming just totally in-the-present and at peace."

Since it appears almost everyone is in agreement on the desirability of this pacific ideal, on campus and elsewhere, permit me here to say a few things in defense of stress. My case is no rhetorical exercise; there is something to Flow Jam that brings to bear a larger ill plaguing our campus.

First let us locate the necessity of stress where it is most obvious. Here, at an academic institution, the engine of the intellect does not take idle, mellow tranquility as its fuel. Academia is a world in which the conversation is only advanced by the opposition of ideas, brought on by dissatisfaction, argument and projects both taxing and nerve-wracking. And what paper or presentation has any of us ever worked on that was both supremely rewarding and devoid of a struggle? Stress, in fact, is the midwife of every great achievement and hard-won effort, particularly in the collegiate setting.

The suppression of conflict and anxiety also has dismal aesthetic consequences. Under the influence of the new-age, "stress-free" enterprise, all art becomes ambiance. A vibrant canvas usually does more to disrupt one's "energy" than to chill one out – and so under the direction of holism and stress-management the visual arts shrivel into lifeless renderings of triggerfish and lotuses. (If the reader finds herself bemused here, she need only look up at the nearest terrapin tapestry hanging in her dorm or apartment.)

Most disturbing is that music, the most vivacious of the arts, is replaced by fuzzy, meditative humming. The sublime manipulations of Debussy, Gershwin and Waits are hardly a good background for your 24-hour craniosacral therapy; much more reassuring and unifying is the tuneless synth module. Now that we're listening with care, surely we must recognize the inherent dissonance between a college's cultivation of the arts and that creeping drone of yoga sound therapy.

Look even closer. Friction, anxiety, pressure – such things are all, quite literally, the prime source of any movement, any activity, any sensation or exhilaration in the physical world (and, if I might insist, the only world we've got).  The buzzing resistance between each and every atomic particle must say something about the life-affirming character of what spiritualists and quacks contemptuously refer to as "stress."

And so Aldous Huxley, no stranger to either the pleasures or dangers of transcendent spirituality, quoted Ephesus on the matter:

"Homer was wrong in saying: 'Would that strife might perish from among gods and men!' He did not see that he was praying for the destruction of the universe; for if his prayer was heard, all things would pass away."

Before you accuse me of taking this all too seriously, I'll state for the record that I chuckled all the way through the carnival of pseudoscience and shamanism that passed through Case Center on Monday afternoon. It was a kind of sick treat to see all the snake oil and magic healing crystals on display in the student center of an accredited institution of higher education. G.K. Chesterton would have been delighted to see his thesis validated, as every neon pamphlet avowed to its reader that X brand of psychic treatment requires no religion or "belief system."

No, of course one can't help but giggle at all this claptrap. I even sat down to have my "auric field" prodded by a grizzled veteran of the Reiki trade, if only for the conversation.

But beneath the beads and incense I submit that there lies a genuine concern that goes beyond Flow Jam. (By the looks of the faces on prospective students and their parents walking through Case on Monday, I am not alone.) What makes this lethargic festival a particularly undesirable thing for Skidmore is that, quite frankly, much our college community already suffers enough from a decadent and near-pervasive idleness.

Looking around, it increasingly appears as though many of us here want things easy and stress-free, or not at all: students advise one another on what class garners the easiest A's; both faculty and students desire timid "dialogue" over rigorous argument; even Integrity Board justice deals with each offender's "narrative" rather than her transgression.

It should be no surprise, then, that we see ventures such as Flow Jam blossoming; it is only one face of a very limiting and frivolous aspect of our campus culture. For that reason, I would emphasize that I don't mean to pick solely on the good people at Fight Club – there are plenty others who require a little stressing out.

But where to begin? I wonder if the lotus-eaters, the consensus-lovers, of Skidmore will make the first move. The idea of them stimulating a debate doesn't seem consistent with the current state of affairs. But if they do take a hard look at what I've brought to bear, perhaps with their help we can change all of this. After all – to stay consistent with this week's theme – the reader might remember what the hotdog vendor told the Buddhist after the pious customer asked for change back for his $20 bill:

"Change comes only from within."

Weekly Zankel preview: Thursday Feb. 23 - March 1: Upcoming concerts and performances in Zankel

Megabus coming to Saratoga Springs: The new stop will allow students to travel from Saratoga to New York City for $1