Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers

The slides were beginning to blur and lose focus as I looked at them. Although I was listening, my professor’s voice seemed more distant than usual. And the light falling onto the projector screen, normally only a minor nuisance, was becoming incredibly distracting.

Maybe it was because I was still recovering from jag lag. Gaining an hour then losing it again around daylight savings time certainly hadn’t helped, to be sure. It probably didn’t help that I hadn’t gotten much sleep the two nights prior, either. Maybe it was my realization that I had so many tasks to be done for my thesis. Or it could have been the paper that nagged at the back of my mind, which had to be written for this Friday that I had only just started.

Whatever the constellation of factors were, I knew that I was reaching my limit. The limit where external pressures became so heavy they started seeping through my boundaries. The limit where once it’s crossed, I begin to shut down–and the time it takes to recover and emerge again feels like a brief hibernation period.

When class ended, I made a snap decision. Actually, I had been considering it during the last 10 minutes of class, so maybe a more accurate description would be a “short-term decision.” As my favorite professor and I walked out of class, I had a request:

“This is going to sound strange, but…can you help me find a bench?”

“A bench?” he asked, a little perplexed.

“Yeah, a bench. Like a park bench.”

“Okay, I’m pretty sure there are some across the street. Why?”

“I’m not feeling that well…I need to sit down.”

I explained to my professor that I was stressed out, that I needed to sit down, that I was overwhelmed and starting to shut down. Not the most helpful strategy, I know, but it starts the recovery process when I don’t have many options left.

As we were walking out of CAS, he gave me some wisdom that at that moment, I needed to be reminded of:

“You should take things one step at a time. Dealing with lots of stress, that’s the cost of having such large brains, Ian.”

I replied, “That’s the cost of being human.”

I then asked him about a book whose title I had heard a long time ago: “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.” I was trying to remember the author (for some reason I first thought it was Steven Pinker, the linguist), and my professor confirmed it was by Robert Sapolsky, a well-known neuroendocrinologist. We had just talked about him in class a few minutes before. As we were walking toward Sargent, I remembered what the book was about: the effects of chronic stress, a phenomenon that seems to be much more prevalent among humans compared to other animals. Unlike many animals, humans don’t always respond to stress with a fight-or-flight response. Instead, sometimes the stress builds to the point where it wears us down and starts affecting out health.

The last time I recall feeling this much internal stress had been in the fall semester of my junior year. Those months have been tinted in hindsight by many sleepless nights and a pervasive feeling of melancholy. Occasionally, that current was punctuated by points of other feelings, friendships and moments that flickered and glowed like warm embers. But those moments seemed few and far between then, even though I know that there were probably lots of them.

We had reached a bench. Parts of it were covered with snow, but it would do. My professor gestured with a sweep of his arm.

“All the benches you can choose from,” he said with a smile (I may have even caught a trace of a grin.) He then asked:

“Isn’t your dorm around here? Couldn’t you go rest there for a while?” I reflected, but could not come up with an answer.

“I’ll have to think about it.” I hesitated.

Then, with more concern, he asked:

“Are you going to be okay?”

“I’ll be okay,” I replied. Sincere, but uncertain. That was the best I could do.

I sat down on the bench, and my professor stood, turned toward me, and gave me his parting advice:

“Take one thing at a time. Don’t think of everything at once. Try not to stay out here in the cold too long. And get some rest.” Those were his words. Simple, practical wisdom–in other words, all that I could ask for from someone who has become a mentor that I look up to. My professor is rarely one to offer words of comfort, but he is certainly one to give words of practical wisdom. And with that wisdom comes a subtle kindness that I rarely see in people.

Looking back, I’m not quite sure how to describe that series of moments. I can describe my thoughts: surprisingly empty, given that I might have been about to shut down and withdraw for a while. I can describe what I sensed: a sunny day with students walking by and some snow still on the ground, with a cold wind blowing along the street. Finally, I can describe what I felt–a mix of stress, fatigue, and respect for the person I was talking to. Most of all, I can describe a sense of warmth that pervaded this interaction, from a simple exchange between a professor and one of his students. There was a small comfort in this warmth, a comfort that reminisced of seeing an ember crackle and spark in a fireplace. I don’t know what to make of this spark, but I do know that for a brief instant, it created a hearth. And near that hearth, the stress that until then had hung over me began to fade, like smoke lazily spiraling away. Perhaps there was a spark of the divine in that moment–it’s difficult to say. But for now, I am content with the fact that for a brief moment, that spark existed.

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