“In the morning she was asked how she had slept. ‘Oh, very badly!’ said she. ‘I have scarcely closed my eyes all night. Heaven only knows what was in the bed, but I was lying on something hard, so that I am black and blue all over my body. It’s horrible!’ Now they knew that she was a real princess because she had felt the pea right through the twenty mattresses and the twenty eider-down beds. Nobody but a real princess could be as sensitive as that. So the prince took her for his wife, for now he knew that he had a real princess.”—Hans Christian Andersen, “The Princess and the Pea” (1835)
Like most of you, I read Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Princess and the Pea” (1835) when I was a kid. Haven’t given it much thought since. But a recent essay by Nassim Nicholas Taleb has led me to revisit it. When I was a kid, I’m pretty sure I came away from the story thinking that the princess was a spoiled brat. But today, at 42, I find myself sympathizing with the princess. She’s a victim of her wealthy upbringing. The girl needs perfect conditions just to get a good night’s sleep!
In our day and age, the princess in Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Princess and the Pea” would grow up to be the kind of woman whose morning is ruined if the new guy at Starbucks messes up her soy-latte; the kind of delicate flower whose entire day is ruined if her favorite yoga instructor calls in sick; the kind of therapy-junkie whose entire week is ruined if her therapist cancels her weekly appointment; the kind of absentee-parent who has a panic attack when the nanny quits because she really doesn’t know how to take care of her own kids. Privilege isn’t always a privilege. And she’s a case in point. Wealth and power have transformed her into an inflexible wimp. Look at her: she’s pathetic. Why do you envy her? You really ought to pity her.
When our sons were babies, many marveled at how easily they could sleep through ambient noise. When asked, Anna-Liisa was happy to share the secret: “If you give your baby a perfectly quiet environment at bedtime, your baby will come to need a perfectly quiet environment to go to sleep; if you give your baby a perfectly quiet environment all through the night, your baby will come to need a perfectly quiet environment to sleep through the night.” As we now know, this principle of desensitization applies to much else (e.g., allergies, stress, losing at games, etc.). It is, in fact, central to Taleb’s concept of antifragility.
In Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (2012), Taleb argues that living things (biological systems) don’t just tolerate stress; they actually need it just to maintain the status quo. For instance, as N.A.S.A. discovered a few years ago, much to their chagrin, the bones of astronauts in a space station quickly degenerate when they’re deprived of the regular stress provided by the Earth’s gravitational field. Likewise, my friend’s muscles atrophied rather severely whilst she was recovering from surgery. Three months on a hospital bed, with very little movement, caused the muscles in her legs to degenerate so much that this former marathon runner could barely walk when she was discharged from the hospital. I remember it vividly: we had to practically carry her to the car.
If it’s true that we need a certain amount of stress merely to maintain the strength that we presently possess, it’s equally true that we need to increase the amount of stress on a biological system if we want it to get stronger (e.g., by lifting weights). The rich and powerful are often, as Taleb puts it, “punished by privilege and comfort.” Muscles that are unused atrophy, bones that are unused become brittle, underutilized immune systems grow weak, and pampered princesses become pathetic pansies who can’t sleep on peas.
—John Faithful Hamer, Parenting in the Age of Studies Have Shown (2017)