Monday, March 26, 2012

Discomfort zone

5:30 a.m.

I like being up when few other people are. I could say it's a result of the 15 years when I never, ever had time alone, but it wouldn't be true. I didn't get up before dawn when the kids were little, because even in the dark children have an inner alarm that goes off whenever they sense Mom might be sneaking a bit of solitude. If I made time to get up, they did, too.

People used to ask how I managed. I had no idea, so I shrugged and said, "Eh -- you adapt." Which is true: mainly I learned to find my quiet within myself, in the midst of doing what I had to do. I figured there are introverts in the slums in Calcutta, taking turns sleeping for lack of space, living with mere cardboard between their overcrowded shack and the next one. Somehow they make do in a world where they are never alone. It's not impossible.

I used to think solitude was so essential it was like air. But lately I've realized I only need solitude to live without discomfort. I need it to minimize stress. I need it for optimal productivity. I can survive without it, even grow without it, but it's a lot more work.

Doing without things we think we need feels like an invasion our comfort zone. It's as if someone took a bite out of a pie that we thought of as rightfully ours. We chew on that empty space like a bad-tasting cud, even (perhaps) spending more energy ruminating on our loss than on learning how to live with it.

Discomfort has the power to truncate our thinking, transforming "I can't see how to do that" into "I can't". That's limiting, even dangerous. People lived for centuries without Starbucks, air conditioning, Tylenol, vacations, pre-made clothing, TV to keep kids busy while supper's being made, and quick ways to communicate. If we think we can't live without these things, we're wrong. Maybe we can't live without them without increasing our stress load. But if we had to, we'd figure out a work-around. We'd learn. We'd cope. We're far more resourceful than we think... if we don't con ourselves into believing that discomfort makes something impossible.


  1. What I noticed when I read your last paragraph were the plethora of choices. Choices add a kind of stress of their own. For example, my parents didn't think of completing a FAFSA to send me to a private school, even though I could have gotten in (at least back then). They just said, "You can't go to those schools." Because for them, the local school was good enough. Multiply that by every aspect of life and despite the (slight) inconveniences, you had a life that, while limited in some respects, was less stressful in others.

    My grandparents, who truly had many fewer choices than I had, and much less comfort, seemed quite contented. I'm not romanticizing, but truly think they did better than simply "managing" and would have found my present life, with its plethora of opportunities to work for, utterly overwhelming. (I picked them because I know they didn't have any of those things in your last paragraph when they were growing up. Plus they had large families.) And maybe when you're close to those around you, you simply don't need as much "me" space. In fact, I learned from my very quiet grandmother how to find contemplation in housework. So, maybe your adaptations and stress depend in part on what your opportunities are?

    Laura A

  2. Sorry, one more thing: I think your key sentence there was, "I need it for optimal productivity." There are a lot of people in the world for whom optimal productivity isn't the point. Are you saying that you still want a certain amount of productivity, and therefore don't mind the extra discomfort involved? Because you do, indeed, produce a lot.

    Feel free to correct me if I misunderstand.

  3. Laura,

    I think you're right about choices: too many, and it's no surprise that we hyperfocus on convenience, because convenience tips the balance and make our decisions easier. But eventually we can become dependent upon convenience.

    Perhaps it's because I work under deadline so much of the time, and have so many other obligations, that I've become dependent upon efficiency to make it all work. I stand in awe (not the good kind) of my reaction to the possibility of getting work done if my computer is broken. It's one of those areas that can drive me into a frenzy of "I CAN'T live like this!" And the truth is, I can live like that if I have to. I can find other ways to write (ye olde paper and pen), or even other places to write in (e.g., I could go to the library, or perhaps borrow a friend's computer while she's working.) However, in the moment I can only think of a limited number of solutions, like paying a fortune to get 2-day service, or buying a new machine.

    A slightly different example: one year, in a fit of what in retrospect can only be described as madness, I gave up coffee for Lent. I was only drinking decaf at the time. What I hadn't known until then was how much I depended on a cup of creamy Joe for comfort. I enjoy tea, but not in the morning: it's thin, and I don't like it with milk. It was the most traumatic Lent ever, because I could not turn to this one little thing for comfort. (Which I suppose could have made it the best Lent ever, since I had dozens of times a day when I was reminded of what I was giving up and why, and I did fill those pockets of time with prayer -- but it was agonizing.)

  4. Reminds me of scene in a short story I read once about a guy who returns home from a Peace Corps stint in Africa a changed man. No one in the story recognizes what he's been through and they just assume he's the same as he ever was. Most of the story is his funny, internal self-talk as he re-enters the first world. At one point he enters a large, suburban grocery store with bright lights and wide aisles. He stands in aisle with all the orange juice or toothpaste (or whatever) choices and becomes so overwhelmed he has a bit of a breakdown. I remember that cautionary tale whenever I start to feel a little crazed by all of my options.

  5. What? Give up coffee?! Now you're talking crazy! ;-)

    Actually, I totally agree that productivity and deadlines are the justification for most of our conveniences. When I worked in such a way that I had to keep track of my time, I drank a lot more coffee, because it kept me from taking breaks. I cooked at home, but not as healthily as I do now. And when I wasn't working, I wanted to unwind with something mindless (another sort of convenience). But in most of the world, people do take breaks, and worry less about the productivity.

    I just saw Monica's (hi, Monica!) comment and she has the same idea. I've met a number of African Christians here in Torino, and they tend to be very joyful. They put me to shame, in fact.

    Julia, I wish I could bring you some convenient homemade broth today--at least those of you who are eating!

  6. Do you think, though, that having so much choice debilitates us when we're faced with situations where we don't have a choice? E.g., when you're a mom with young children and don't have $$ for a babysitter and you're desperate for time alone... can you adapt? Or does your habituation to choice cause you to get stuck?

  7. as an old mom with young children with no babysitter.. i think there is something to be said for the moments when you just accept where you are and how it is. choice or no choice. here i am, provided for, whether i like it or not. . . i don't always get zen on my situation, but when I do, we're all the better for it...

  8. I am relieved to hear of another mom who's children have the inner alarm clock tuned perfectly to the squeak of the floor on mom's side of the bed. I've been struggling to find time to run (and get a bit of solitude during that) and I am weary of people suggesting that I get up at 5am to make time for myself. That was my habit for a few months, but the 3rd time my husband was woken up by the sound of our 3 year old outside on the corner in her pajamas in the dark screaming for her mother he asked me to try to work out another way. For now I run on the weekends and know that they will be older one day.

  9. Yes, Julia, I do. At least, I think that if you're used to thinking you *should* have a choice, it's much easier to become discontented. But also, I've thought about this a lot over the years and realize that much of the worry n my life comes because I'm not sure I'm making the right choice. If I truly know I have to do something, I focus my energy there. If I don't, I spend lots of energy even before the task and sometime become anxious, wondering what the right choice is.

    I'm not really one to speak to the babysitter situation in this stage in life, as I was never a mother of a large family and my one is almost ready to leave (this can make a mom sappily nostalgic). But when I did have Sarie underfoot day and sometimes night, and was loath to spend money on a sitter, I do think it made me work harder on developing our relationship in a long term, day in and day out, way. (You know I don't mean caving, right?) If the choice to hire the sitter had been easier, I might not have worked so hard.

    So, as to whether usually having a choice debilitates us when we don't, I can honestly think of situations in which it can go either way, and I really do think there's a stress to having too much choice, even if it's not suddenly restricted. But stress is different from loss, which can come when you have no choice. I'm under no illusions that I'd rather not have a good doctor in an emergency, for instance.

  10. Laura, have you read The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar? It's an outstanding book about the research on whether or not choice makes us happy. She's the person who did the famous experiment with jam in grocery stores. When people were allowed to sample any of 15 types and given a coupon for a dollar off any jar, hardly anyone redeemed the coupon. When they were allowed to choose between six or seven jams and given a coupon, the redemption rate went up dramatically. But the book also covers research on things like whether or not getting to choose your spouse makes you have a happier marriage, and cultural differences in the way people make choices in community-oriented vs. individualist-oriented countries, and whether getting to choose when (or if) to take a child off life support helps people recover from grief faster. Fascinating stuff.

    BTW, my Little Guy has a terrible time making choices, and I think it's because he becomes paralyzed by the possibility of making the wrong one. Still trying to figure that one out!

  11. I haven't read the book, but I've heard of the experiment. Makes sense to me. And if it's bad for jams, it's worse for colleges, careers, spouses, and any other decision with long-term implications. I'm with Little Guy!

    BTW, Dr. Keller, quoting someone else, said a marriage, over a lifetime, is like being married to five different people, all of them sinners. I'm probably butchering that quote, but I'm sure you get the point that there is no perfect choice. Not that people in love shouldn't do a little more critical thinking...