Standing on a promontory in Hawaii above an ocean of cobalt blue, I knew that I had seen the best of two worlds. Born in the heart of the West Virginia hills, I’d grown up surrounded by trees of nearly every shade of green on the color wheel, but I didn’t see the ocean until I was 24. And I’d never seen an ocean like the one I saw 30 years later from a precipitous cliff in Kauai.
The island weather had been colder than we’d expected, but my husband and I donned our swimsuits that morning and covered them with layers and jackets. This was nothing I hadn’t done countless times during my childhood in West Virginia, where the chilly mornings slowly gave way to the warmth of the sun. Undaunted by the absence of tropical breezes, we eagerly followed our friends across the rocky terrain to what they assured us would be a breathtaking view.
When we arrived at the peak, my eyes didn’t know where to look first. The ocean stretched to the horizon, broken by clusters of lava rock that punctuated the landscape, allowing me to take a breath before my eyes read on. Though we stood high above the surface, the waves crashed against the rocks, spraying us with water as I backed away, holding my breath.
Again I thought of West Virginia. I’d taken the beauty of my surroundings for granted for most of my childhood, until I visited Spruce Knob, the highest point in the state. I remembered holding my breath and backing up from the overlook in the same way—the first time I really became aware that great beauty and great danger are sometimes separated by the tiniest of invisible lines. The towering pines were bare on one side, stripped by the force of the constant wind. In that moment, I’d felt just as I felt on that cliff in Hawaii—that I might be small and insignificant but that the God I believed in was small enough to fit inside me and big enough to create a world of awe-inspiring places.
I thought of those moments again when I read the morning news today and learned that this year’s Gallup survey results show that the least stressed people in the country live in Hawaii. No surprise there. But I was surprised to learn that the most stressed people in the country are the residents of West Virginia. I was so surprised that, as I sometimes do, I checked the original source. I wasn’t disbelieving, as I usually am when I turn to a primary source, but I wanted to read the original report without the spin of journalists.
Because I’m skeptical of surveys, which are often designed to get the results the sponsor wants, I read about the design of the survey. I was impressed to learn that Gallup, unlike many other companies, had used both landlines and cell phones, though the balance was a bit in favor of landlines—400 cell calls for every 600 landline contacts. And they also made an effort to find respondents who were diverse in age, gender, ethnicity, and education.
Satisfied that the survey seemed credible, I read the summary and discovered that Hawaii has ranked as the least stressed state every year for the past five years and that West Virginia has consistently been ranked in the five most stressful states. As one might expect, there was a strong correlation to the rate of employment—more stress in states with higher unemployment.
But when I checked the Bureau of Labor Statistics web site, I found that the unemployment rate in West Virginia for 2012 ranked only 23rd of the 50 states. So what explains that the people in a state filled with beautiful, peaceful places to calm the soul would feel so much more stress than people elsewhere?
Perhaps it’s easier for the people of Hawaii to disregard the troubles that plague the mainland. After all, it takes six hours by plane to get to the turmoil on the continental U.S., and one can always turn off the television when the sadness creeps across the airwaves to paradise. And while those of us on the mainland could choose to do the same, we tend to be bombarded by images that accost us even when we turn off our televisions. As children during the ‘60s and ‘70s, my classmates and I saw the news only for an hour each evening, and the turmoil of those years didn’t seem as close as every conflict seems now.
I wonder, too, how faith figures into the equation. We know from other surveys that having a strong faith helps people live longer, more abundant lives. But I also have many friends in my home state who are traumatized by a faith that makes no room for questioning a God they’ve been taught offers more vengeance than comfort. And when I read the results of the Pew Forum’s research last year which shows that young adults are leaving churches in droves, I have to wonder how many people are struggling because they were taught that if their prayers aren’t being answered it’s because they don’t have enough faith or aren’t “right with God.”
Each time I scan the Charleston and Beckley papers online from my home state, I read articles that reflect how little control most of the people in the state have over their economic well-being. The coal and gas companies, in an attempt to preserve the riches they’ve reaped from the state, convince the masses that sustainable energy is a threat to their way of life. The last time I drove into the county where I lived as a young adult, I was greeted by a hate-filled billboard denigrating the president and urging everyone to be a “friend of coal.”
At that moment I thought of those trees on Spruce Knob and wished I had enough money and know-how to fund clean energy businesses—perhaps windmills—to replace the strip mines that surround the cemetery where my father is buried.
Stress and depression, as a good therapist once told me, come from feeling that we have no control. “All of us have choices,” he told me, “so look at your life and take control over what you can.” And he’s right. So my prayer for my home state is that they will somehow find a way to break free of those who chain them to a style of life where others get rich from the burdens they carry.
So how is your state of stress?