Tension by Subhadra Jayaraman

In school, we learnt how to measure the physical strength of materials. Nylon cords, twine, cotton threads, jute ropes, plastics, paper, plaster of Paris. They were straightforward tests. How much stress and strain can a material endure before it fractures? How much tension can a taut string withstand before it snaps? The results were hard numbers. Easy to decide which type of cord was better for reinforcing your structure. Easy to decide which material will last longer and stand more weight. Easy to decide which rope to use for any application. Because it was simple, plain math. One formula for all items – the best number wins.

If only it was that easy to measure the strength of heartstrings or nerves. The load applied isn’t a large iron slab weighing 50 tons here, it is an imaginary emotional load. The force applied cannot be calculated on paper with variables and formulae, it is the incalculable weight of a situation. ‘A heavy heart’ cannot be placed on a weighing balance and tared. ‘Gut wrenching’ moments cannot be mounted on clamps and measured in angles. ‘Tension’ for a nylon cord is very different than it is for a human mind.

The principles and nomenclature are vaguely similar. We are species of a restricted nature, prone to drawing parallels. ‘Stretched thin’ applies to the money in your wallet, your resolve, and the wiring on your lawn mower. The weight in ‘weighed down’ can mean your troubles, your daily activities, or the box you’re carrying up two flights of stairs. Just like in the mechanics class, we can ask ourselves the same questions – how much stress and strain can our mind endure before it fractures? How much tension can a taut resolve withstand before it snaps? The answer is not numbers. The answer is not straightforward. The answer is, however, analogous. It is equivalent to the materials in the lab, only peppered with metaphors, emotions, and a larger number of discrepancies.

For instance, when you test the strength of a certain length of a nylon cord, you realize that one of the reasons it snaps is when there is too much force in too little area. The thinner the cord, the faster it gives. Increase the thickness, and it fractures much later. We are quite the same. The diameter of the cord being somewhat similar to our sense of tolerance. The weaker is it, the faster we tend to lose it in times of adversity. The broader our patience and acceptance, the longer it takes for force and misfortune to tear us down. Another reason a cord snaps is if it is stretched too far, too fast. The velocity matters. And so does the change it its length. Nylon cords are somewhat elastic, meaning they can withstand stretching without snapping rudely in your face. That makes them more durable than say the same length of chalk, which cannot be stretched and is therefore brittle. Humans aren’t chalk, and I can be so bold as to say we are far more elastic than nylon. Even more, perhaps, than rubber bands. Our resolve is often tested by the rapidity and extent of mishaps and we are capable of emerging gloriously victorious, having been resilient in face of calamities that take down weaker beings.

Not all materials are the same, and neither are all human resolves. Metaphorically, our very existence is a constant lab experiment, testing our strength, elasticity, and fracture points. We all fail, we all win, we all end up stretched too thin or with a heavy heart time and again. We break, we mend, we snap, we heal. Tension is but a test, and the results, au contraire to the nylon strings in the physics lab, make us stronger.

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