How Do We Hold the Tension?

The Golden Gate Bridge successfully spans 4,200 feet across the entrance to the San Francisco Bay and supports the travel of over 100,000 vehicles each day. One day, when I was driving across, I wondered: “We often ask, ‘How do we achieve balance in our lives?’ But what about the question, ‘How do we hold the tension in our lives?’ My older daughter is a structural engineer, so I asked her to help me understand tension.

She replied: “All tensions referred to below are stresses, not strains, ok? That’s a different thing. . . . Tension is a force that acts on a body or a member. It is an internal force.”

It turns out tension is primarily internal, not external. Although tension may seem to be coming from “out there,” it is actually coming from within us.

My daughter continued: “Although tension is an internal force, it can be greatly affected by outside forces.  [In the case of a cable], the wind blowing on the cable can affect the way the cable sags (hangs), and thus the applied tension. . . . Gravity plays a big role.”

External forces, such as other people’s issues and agendas, can increase our own inner tension.

She added: “The system that supports the cable is very important in the design as well. The system (be it a beam, tower, pole, etc.) must be able to resist the tension that is being applied.  Note that the tension that is applied to the support system is equal and opposite to the tension that is applied to the cable.”

If we are going to hold the tension in our lives, we need to have a good support system. The mentors, partners, and advisors we trust must also be able to carry their own level of tension. Do they know themselves well? Are they doing their own inner work?

My daughter noted: “As tension occurs when the cable is strung between two objects, BOTH systems must be able to sustain the tension.  If one breaks, the other must be able to hold the weight of the full system (but then there isn’t as much tension, since it isn’t being pulled on both sides. This is bad. Very bad for engineers.)”

Our ability to sustain the tension, day in and day out, is important. Our integrity, and the integrity of our support systems, will be tested.

She added, “In order to avoid that sort of failure, a Factor of Safety is applied to all designs.  That Factor of Safety is standardized by the government, and it allows for unforeseen circumstances. Overdesign is better (not economically, but when safety is concerned) than underdesign.”

Overdesign of our safety features – meditation or prayer, study, reflection with mentors/spiritual directors – may seem too costly in terms of our time when, in fact, it is the best investment we can make. This is a necessary Factor of Safety — for us and for those around us.

She then wrote: “Every wire/cable, etc has a specific tension that it can be strung to without breaking.  Different external forces (such as temperature) affect different cables in different ways, as they are formed from different materials, etc.”

Like bridge cables, each of us is different. We need to know our breaking points. We need to know the warning signs that tell us we are approaching overload. At that point, we need more support.

My daughter added a final note: “P.S.  When designing a cable it is critical to remember that a whole flock of birds could land on it at any moment. This should not break your wire. :-)”

We can be prepared for the unexpected. By taking the time to develop our support systems, we will have the increased capacity we need to hold the tension when life surprises us.


Anne Dilenschneider, PhD


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