By Ethan Maurice | October 25, 2017
“In most gardens, they make the beds too soft—so that the flowers are always asleep.” - The Tiger-lily (Through The Looking Glass)
We've been taught that the good life is found in comfort—in luxury, in relaxation, and in doing as little as possible. Those best living the American Dream have the constant experience of the highest comfort with butlers, drivers, cooks, maids, secretaries, and assistants to anticipate their every want and need. At that pinnacle of comfort, one shouldn't have to do so much as lift a finger, every desire as satiated as possible in every moment.
Is constant comfort, ease, and luxury the real pinnacle of human experience, though? The rightful aim of the western world?
I don't think so. In fact, I've increasingly come to see comfort as false gratification, as the wrong target most are unknowingly aimed at.
In the USA, comfort is our false idol.
Comfort is nice, but it's not the point. Pursuing comfort is akin to seeking shelter, and shouldn't our lives be lived for something greater than taking cover? Too much comfort becomes the enemy of many a good thing. In fact, on both individual and societal levels, comfort opposes awareness, change, appreciation, and wonder.
Let's elaborate on each:
Comfort, the enemy of awareness.
Comfort limits our experience to only what is easy and enjoyable. In this way, comfort seals us off from the world, limiting our range of exposure to only that which we like. This lack of exposure leads to a lack of awareness.
A politician who travels by private jet, associates only with other elite, and has a security team to keep from being bothered by commoners loses touch with those they're meant to represent.
A couple unable to have uncomfortable conversations won't ever fully understand each other.
Urbanites unwilling to forgo first-world amenities will never experience our powerful, intimate connection with the natural world.
Comfort, the enemy of change.
Nobody willingly surrenders the comfort they have. Anything potentially disruptive to our comfort becomes a threat to either avoid or eliminate. To maintain comfort, we remain holdfast to that which provides it, even if it's become outdated, irrelevant, or what many might even call "evil."
Most people will spend their lives doing things they don't like doing to maintain their level of comfort. Fearing change might lessen their comfort and security, they remain holdfast to a job or career they wouldn't wish upon anybody else.
On a societal level, this is one of the reasons why the transition from old, antiquated systems to new, better ones take so long. From fossil fuels to cable television to pharmaceutical companies against marijuana reform, people made comfortable by antiquated systems seek to prolong them and the comfort they provide as long as possible (often by sabotage of the new and better).
Comfort, the enemy of appreciation.
The greater the consistency of comfort the less we appreciate it. Constant comfort becomes numbness. In fact, deprivation (essentially the opposite comfort) is the quintessential ingredient of appreciation.
A month ago, a snowstorm knocked the power out to the lodge I manage next to Yellowstone. We woke up to near freezing rooms, with no power to cook, and no connection to the outside world. After sixteen hours without power, the lights of our cold, dark lodge suddenly flicked on! We leaped and cheered and were ecstatic to have electricity—something I've admittedly taken for granted my entire life. I still turn my electric tea kettle on each morning with such gratitude.
Comfort, the enemy of presence, wonder, and feeling alive.
“Men sometimes confess they love war because it puts them in touch with the experience of being alive. In going to the office every day, you don't get that experience, but suddenly, in war, you are ripped back into being alive. Life is pain, life is suffering, and life is horror—but, by God, you are alive.”
- Joseph Campbell (The Power of Myth)
Too much comfort dulls our experience while discomfort pulls us into the moment, into the now, and makes us feel alive. This is a big part of why people exercise. My brother once mentioned that sprints were a lot like meditation as trying to maintain a 100% sprint made it virtually impossible to think of anything else.
I sold my car in May and arrived at my summertime job with only a bicycle. We don't have internet in Silver Gate, but the town three miles up the road does. Last summer, I drove those three miles most days to connect. This summer, I pedaled a bicycle. The commute by car was quick, easy, and my mind was always somewhere else. But riding a bike took time and sweat and the exposure to my majestic mountainous surroundings. The chilled air, the view, the pedaling, and the engagement of my senses made me feel wild, free, and alive.
Now that I've indulged myself in a thorough thrashing of society's misguiding light, I'd like to backpedal a bit and say that comfort isn't all bad.
I am not advocating that we forgo all comfort and convenience. In fact, comfort is necessary to stick with anything as prolonged discomfort will eventually push us away from even that which we love most.
What I am saying is that comfort is not the answer. Comfort should not be what we seek, but rather a factor in the decisions we make. Like a rain jacket on a cloudy day, comfort is a consideration, but ultimately, our days should be aimed with a higher intent than staying dry.
To be truly free, we must be able to forgo comfort, at least for periods of time. For, if comfort is a necessity, our options in life are severely limited, as chances that risk comfort can't be taken. Should this be the case, we can get stuck—as so many people are—their lives reduced to a mere sweet, easy, and unfulfilling slice of life.
To maintain the ability to forgo comfort is to stay young, nimble, and adaptive. To do so, we must exercise our ability to be uncomfortable, simply by getting uncomfortable from time to time. We can do this by:
- Trying things we've never done before.
- Pushing through the discomfort of exercise.
- Initiating uncomfortable, necessary conversations.
- Reducing our luxuries to a level where we don't need that job.
- Leaving our comfy beds behind for a night to sleep out under the stars.
- Doing anything beneficial that requires us to experience discomfort.
May we all be more comfortable with being uncomfortable and dream a better dream than luxury.