I’m not against comfort. I like our woodstove, and our comforter, and a lovely hot shower with at least adequate water pressure on a day like today. But as fall closes in, and people begin to contemplate the winter on the other side of it, I hear a lot of obsessing over how very very uncomfortable it will be, and how that’s just terrible. We’re a rather comfort obsessed society, on the whole. It wasn’t always this way; “comfort” as something we should strive for, let alone expect, did not really exist until after the Renaissance, as one of my favorite authors, Bill Bryson, makes clear in “At Home: a Short History of Private Life” (which I highly recommend). Before that, no one even spoke of comfort. They threw another layer of straw down on the matted, lice-seething floor every night and passed out from the exhaustion of another day’s subsistence.
What a luxury that we live in a time where people can say things like, “Well, we really need at least 5 bedrooms because the kids just can’t share a room. That wouldn’t be fair,” or “No double sinks? I don’t think so. And we really need a heated floor. In this climate? I mean, obviously.” We’re totally ensconced in a comfort bubble all the time. And what’s wrong with that, aside from the fact that it seems to be the track that led humans to become cheerful but boneless and obese blobs in Wall-E? Because comfort all the time is stultifying. It’s boring. Comfort is comfortably lame. Discomfort, on the other hand, tends to mark all the things we’re proudest of. Birthing babies, running long races in very bad weather, carrying a three year old up to the top of a mountain just to eat a sandwich and come back down. These things are not comfortable, but they are the things that make my life into something I love, and not just something that insulates me from that life. Many of these things are not pleasurable in any conventional sense. Christophe, my husband, just ran a half marathon today, in the rain. He surpassed his time goal by a full ten minutes, and as he passed us near the finish line, his face was the picture of obliviously inward focus and exhaustion. Also, any runner can tell you that such a scenario can lead to a lot of chafing. A lot. Of chafing.
Adults learn to shy away from discomfort, but kids embrace it. Kids have to be hauled out of the ocean with blue lips and bodies convulsing with cold, and will still shriek to be permitted to swim a little longer. Kids will shear off half their leg skin in a bicycle mishap and return for another round after a brief, stunned crying jag. Kids will run until they throw up. Last weekend, we stopped at Echo Lake in Franconia Notch and Simon wanted to swim. It was about 50 degrees, but I stripped him down to his diaper and permitted him to go in. He was cold, to be sure, and so, in a classically New Hampshire fashion move, I placed a winter hat atop his head and he kept that ensemble for the duration of our beach visit until I hauled him, teeth chattering, to the car.
I’m not looking for us all to move into unheated yurts with a single pallet on the floor made of lichen and oak leaves. I’m not advocating a particularly harsh form of austerity or deprivation. I’m merely suggesting that we look at the most important moments in our whole lives, and think, in how many of them were we feeling comfortable? Getting married, having kids, taking a new job, getting asked a really good question by a student and not knowing the answer: they vary in degree, but my discomfort was always part of what defined these moments for me. We all need some comforts, both physical and emotional, but discomfort counts for something too. It’s the profound unsettling of the ground under our feet, and it’s the things we most vividly remember.