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The tyranny of comfort

When I was a kid, I was on the neighborhood swim team in the summers. No one mistook me for Michael Phelps. In fact, I may be the anti-Phelps. We’re both lean, but while his body is built for buoyancy, mine seems to be designed for sinking. Each year to celebrate the end of the season, the swim team held a potluck banquet and bestowed awards upon the best swimmers. Most years I took home the Coach’s Award, the consolation prize given to the kid who tried hard despite having no chance to win a race. To make matters worse, my nickname as a competitive swimmer was Colonel Mustard. The pool had four lanes. First place earned you a blue ribbon; second place, a red ribbon; and third place, a white ribbon. The obligatory prize for fourth place was a mustard yellow ribbon.

During the season when I was 9 or 10 years old, we had a meet at the opposing team’s pool on a surprisingly cool June evening. My mom and dad sat in chairs on the grass at the edge of the pool deck with other parents rooting for their aquatically gifted offspring. I had just finished a race in my customary place — last. I didn’t have another race for a while, so I went over to where my parents were seated. I was starting to shiver, and it probably showed on my face that I was feeling dejected. Without a word, my dad opened up a towel, wrapped me in it like a mummy, and sat me down in his lap. He used the towel to wipe away my goosebumps, my chattering teeth, and the pain of defeat. I didn’t swim any faster in the next race, but I sure felt a lot better. That evening my dad gave me one of the most memorable gifts I’ve ever received — it was a gift of comfort.

Comfort… the word has a positive connotation; it even sounds pleasant to the ear. It derives from the Latin, comfortare, which literally means to strengthen much. Most people can recall meaningful moments of comfort. But how do we come to appreciate such comfort? How can we be “strengthened much” by such comfort? Only if it comes in response to adversity.

It’s simple to see the benefits of comfortable living. Who wants to lead a life of suffering and deprivation? When you’re hungry, it’s good to have food. When you’re cold or sick, it’s good to have a place to go. When you’re feeling downhearted, it’s good to have the support of a caring companion. We feel comforted when we are able to meet our needs. But there is a limit to the benefits of comfort. If I were to arrange my life with comfort-seeking as the ultimate goal, I would miss out on some of the best stuff.

I would never have felt the warmth from my dad had I not first felt the chill of the pool and the sting of the last-place finish. I would never ride my bike, especially not in the rain. In fact, I might not venture out of doors very often (sometimes the temperature veers dangerously from a comfortable 75 degrees Farenheit). I would never push myself beyond the bounds of comfort to experience what life has to offer. In a lengthy tirade on the subject, Edward Abbey exhorted tourists to exit their vehicles and subject themselves to the wonderful discomfort of the desert (from Desert Solitaire):

“Look here, I want to say, for godsake folks get out of them there machines, take off those fucking sunglasses and unpeel both eyeballs, look around; throw away those goddamned idiotic cameras! For chrissake folks what is this life if full of care we have no time to stand and stare? Take off your shoes for a while, unzip your fly, piss hearty, dig your toes in the hot sand, feel that raw and rugged earth, split a couple of big toenails, draw blood! Why not? Jesus Christ, lady, roll that window down! You can’t see the desert if you can’t smell it! Dusty! Of course it’s dusty – this is Utah! But it’s good dust, good red Utahn dust, rich in iron, rich in irony. Turn that motor off. Get out of that piece of iron and stretch your varicose veins, take off your brassiere and get some hot sun on your old wrinkled dugs… …Yes sir, yes madam, I entreat you, get out of those motorized wheelchairs, get off your foam rubber backsides, stand up straight like men! like women! like human beings! and walk — walk — WALK upon our sweet and blessed land!”

What about the role of comfort in a broader sense, beyond the life of an individual or a family? Comfort seems to have pushed its way to the top of the priorities list when it comes to the economy (maybe comfort takes the red ribbon, a few body lengths behind the blue-ribbon winner, growth). Marketers and consumers share the blame. Ubiquitous ads convince us how much more comfortable we’ll be when we own <insert your favorite overblown, overpriced product here>. And we consistently convince ourselves that we can satisfy our needs by purchasing evermore “comfortable crap.” It’s as if the purpose of the economy is to make sure we’re comfortable.


Is this the American dream?

Blind pursuit of comfort must take some blame for the quandary we find ourselves in. In America, we’re burning through an incredible bounty of fossil fuel, a bounty so energy-dense that most of us fail to comprehend its magnitude. And we’re burning that fuel at a frightening rate to support what Dick Cheney termed our “non-negotiable way of life.” This way of life is centered on comfort. Centered on driving what we want when we want. Centered on powering ever bigger TV screens. Centered on transporting evermore goods along oversized freeways. Centered on consuming any available resource. Perhaps it’s only news to Mr. Cheney (and other politicians before and since), but “unsustainable” will trump “non-negotiable” every time. And America is about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, not the pursuit of comfort.

Like anything else, the pursuit of comfort (both at the household level and at the macro-economic level) requires balance. Some comfort is good. Chasing constant comfort is counterproductive. Another author who’s not quite as hotheaded as Edward Abbey, but just as insightful, has made this point. William Somerset Maugham once wrote, “Any nation that thinks more of its ease and comfort than its freedom will soon lose its freedom; and the ironical thing about it is that it will lose its ease and comfort too.”

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