Escaping Comfort

by marin mikulic

One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned is to avoid excessive comfort. It was taught to me by an old carpet I encountered during my younger days when my family and I would go to an old house in the countryside, surrounded by a messy yard.

I don’t remember much about the innards of this house, besides that its interior did feel like innards — humid, dark, and smelly. I vaguely recollect two floors and a most peculiar carpet that ran wall to wall like moss. As I’d walk on it, it would give considerably beneath each step so that I had to slightly bounce while walking, which confused my feet and my center of balance.

At first, this carpet was a wonderful curiosity. It’s dusty existence guaranteed I’d never fall too hard, or slip, or experience any type of discomfort. Once I was inside the walls of the deteriorating house, I could let go of any precaution and thinking — the carpet vanished the thorns and brambles of life. Slowly, though, the curiosity turned into a disinterested disgust as my body came to terms with the fact that it was not meant to walk on such soft surfaces which, like a swamp, grabbed at my feet.

The yard was another matter altogether. It was bristling with delicious, and often child-inappropriate, curiosities — stones and rocks of every sort imaginable, old rusty wires, hammers and tree stumps to drive nails into, iron pipes half buried into the ground and half erect in the air that held up the rough vines pregnant with bitter grapes, a pig sty that at once attracted and repelled by its smell, chickens on the road, deteriorating car parts, shears too big for my small hands but nevertheless wonderful to play with and pretend they were swords, even though I’d earn a slap on the back of the head if caught, and a thousand thousand other oddities that had served as bricks for my imagination.

Most of it was old, rusty, sharp, and slightly frustrating. I could never find all the right pieces to make reality of the many envisioned bows and arrows, swords, kites, slings, sleds, and helmets fashioned of virtually everything. For some reason, it seemed important to have something covering my head as a child. It was all slightly too big, or too small, or too thin, or too heavy, or missing a crucial piece. In short, it was all so very lifelike with its joy, pain, hurt, exhilaration, failures, and the occasional eureka moments.

The sharp distinction between the safety of that sprawling carpet and the living, breathing, foolish world beyond its borders has remained with me during all my travels. The house has since been renovated and the carpet is gone, but the idea of it still remains in my cranium and in this adult life. It’s in the way we go about our days, craving comfort above all else. Craving perpetual relaxation, security, stability, a sense of safety that clings to us like a plastic wrapper, a warm embrace to eliminate all obstacles and suffocate all daring. We’ve got painkillers for the pain, sleeping pills for insomnia, medication for anxiety, Netflix to kill the time (thus killing the only thing we cannot have more of), Spotify to strangle and choke silence, alcohol for illusory courage, Tinder to suppress loneliness, and social media to construct a false bubble of perfection and bliss. We hunger to create these bubbles where, like in Huxley’s Brave New World, we sacrifice at the altar of perpetual comfort our ability to cope and learn from discomfort.

This ability is not unique to humanity, but we are unique in having repressed it for the sake of maintaining comfort. Essentially all living organisms have mechanisms to detect and outmanoeuvre discomfort by adaptation and growth. Lobsters are maybe the most fitting example because, by their nature, they are unable to physically grow like most other organisms do. Their protective outer shells also stunt growth, thus forcing them to undergo a process called molting where they scurry under rocks, discard their old shell, and grow a new, bigger one while eating the old one for sustenance.

The cue for the molting process to begin is the increasing pain and pressure lobsters feel as their growing bodies get squished against the now too small shell. In the words of Rabbi Abraham Twerski, the stimulus for the lobster to be able to grow is that it feels uncomfortable. Were the lobster to take a painkiller it might then not feel pain, but it would also die because repression of pain does not equal freedom from it.

As different as we may consider ourselves from lobsters, it is frustratingly obvious that we’re alike. The lives of both species are a balancing act where both absence and excess of anything brings about no benefit, save only in the short term. To benefit from the comfortable, we must also be intimately familiar with the uncomfortable. This means sometimes accepting boredom, hunger, pain, loneliness, silence, imperfection, and sadness as a way for us to re-enter the space we seem to have lost along the way — the space where all the chatter fades away and we’re left alone with our thoughts. This is the place where the human being undergoes its own molting process which cannot — will not — happen if we cover our entire confused existence with a decrepit old carpet that cushions the footsteps of discomfort so thoroughly that we cannot even hear its arrival and greet it with a quiet:

Hello, welcome.

I’m listening.

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