A Storytelling Serial
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In the kid culture of my youth, fairness was a big deal. I was in my thirties before it occurred to me that life isn’t always fair. Sure, I had been treated unfairly many times before then; but I always thought such injustice was an aberration. I was outraged. How could anyone behave in such a manner toward sweet little me, especially when I’m good at heart and mean well?
The turning point was when I stopped taking lack of fairness personally and looked outside myself. I finally realized it wasn’t just me. Life isn’t always fair for everyone, and for many people it’s a lot less fair than for others.
In discussing this amazing new revelation with my husband, we marveled that none of our four parents had ever taught either of us to expect bad things to happen for absolutely no good reason. And we wondered if a new generation was finally learning the reality of unfairness—or if they were growing up as we did, with a finely tuned notion of equity that turned to shock when wronged.
I don’t know the answer to that question, but I have observed a growing societal belief related to our concepts of fairness. These days, many children and adults behave as if emotional comfort helps make their lives fair.
Why We Avoid Discomfort
I’m fascinated by period films that painstakingly show everyday hardships for previous generations. Dirt. Slow transportation. Rampant poverty. Chamber pots. High childbirth mortality. No cell phones.
In those dark days, I doubt I would have survived past adolescence, especially considering the emergency appendectomy I needed when I was nine. And I always finish the movie with a profound sense of gratitude that I live now instead of two hundred years ago.
I’ve grown soft, and I’m not as tough as they were then.
Modern inventions have been cleverly marketed, and they’re ubiquitous. We’ve seen the future, and it is us.
We need never be uncomfortable, and we’re told and shown that truth at every turn.
Along with profit-hungry providers and sellers, our families, teachers, and medical providers have told us how to seek ease—and have encouraged us to do so, because they care about us and don’t want us to suffer.
We’re currently so protected from difficulty—and its accompanying unpleasant feelings—that avoidance is a national habit, and we’re allowed to sidestep discomfort no matter the price.
We’ve reached a point where it’s difficult to complain about any individual distress, because no matter the problem, there’s an app, a solution, a commodity, a palliative, a drug, a Band-Aid, a cure to ease the pain point.
What Discomfort Achieves
Consequently, now that we’re completely acclimated to seeking comfort as a way to level the bumps of unfairness, we forget the advantages of discomfort.
That’s a loss. Consider:
It’s not possible to begin moving from one point to another without first being acutely aware of reality. That kind of awareness can’t happen when truths are dulled by comfort. To know we want or need something different, we must feel the dis-ease of what we already have.
Once we wake up to discomfort, though, we must stay with it—sometimes for a long time—to get through it.
Deciding to find a different job, to acquire a new skill, to go back to school, to launch a business, to move, to start or leave a relationship, to begin working on mental or physical health, to engage in social change, to tackle a major item on the “before I die” list, or to prepare for an imminent death is but the beginning of living outside the comfort zone.
From that point of decision, we enter a whole new level of confusion, mistakes, risk, failure, lack of fit, boredom, second-guessing, and self-doubt. It gets worse—often much worse—before we return to a place of inner calm.
So why would we want to continue down the path of distressing disequilibrium when our world encourages us to quickly restore balance with fast solutions and ready relief?
Because we can’t achieve anything that matters without willingness to feel bad for as long as it takes.
Life isn’t fair. And it isn’t easy. Not even with flush toilets and fast jets. When society says otherwise, it’s pretense.
How to Distinguish between Useful Discomfort and the Kind to Avoid
Of course, we shouldn’t unquestioningly embrace all discomfort. Asking for help, learning from another’s experience, dialing 9-1-1 in a medical emergency, checking our parachutes before jumping, obeying traffic laws, getting enough sleep, appreciating good chocolate—there’s nothing inherently wrong with making life’s challenges more manageable.
And I suspect that the litmus test for whether to accept and stay with discomfort is often determined by individual tolerance level. It seems likely that many factors contribute to any one person’s ability to withstand internal pressure.
But when we feel friction begin to disturb the smooth surfaces we’ve laboriously polished and we react by immediately seeking a soothing escape, we need to ask ourselves an important question:
What is the long-term consequence of accepting and staying with this discomfort?
If the answer points to unnecessary bodily harm or untimely death, to ethical or moral compromise, or to permanent emotional agony or financial ruin, then it’s discomfort to avoid.
However, if it’s discomfort that can lead to a desired outcome, try—really try—to stick with it. The funny thing about feeling uncomfortable is that once we fully experience it, we usually find we can handle it much better than they told us we could. In fact, we might find we’re not as soft as we thought.
Is something making you uncomfortable? In the Comments section below, we’d love to know if you’re willing to live with it, and why.
4/27/2019 11:45:50 am
This piece was really timely for me, as I recently took a class of 5th graders on an overnight stay in the Rocky Mountains. Talk about some stark experiences with discomfort! The kids had to spend 2 full days without access to their electronics, flush toilets, and showers. This was a first for most of them, and the lessons they learned about dealing with discomfort and taking modern convenience for granted cannot be overstated.
4/27/2019 04:41:08 pm
Katie, thanks for reading and leaving such a great comment! The real-life stories—and the pictures they paint—are priceless. And as a teacher, you have a front-row view of how quickly children believe what we tell them (and model for them!) about becoming comfortable with discomfort and claiming their own strength.
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