Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Perils of Comfort

Without the weight given by a wound consciously realized, the man leads a provisional life.
- Robert Bly


People constantly ask why I hike long distances. “To prevent myself from becoming too comfortable” is one of my answers. Inevitably, with confused or angry expressions they ask: “What’s wrong with comfort?” When an otherwise stoic friend said something similar recently, I realized how deeply the connection between comfort and happiness has grown in Western culture, a connection that grows more solid and unchallenged every day.

In the past, when life was much more difficult for humans, comfort was a more positive goal. After struggling against cave lions for aurochs meat and dragging it back to the den, the pursuit of physical and psychological relaxation seemed a worthy one. But now, when lazy people conveniently buy their comfort from convenience stores, the pursuit of comfort has become a deadly force, sucking us into mediocrity and stagnation. “If only you just tell me you believe, you will be chosen and go to heaven.” I was told by an evangelist. How tempting! “You can work from home for only a few hours a day!” I was told by a job recruiter. How easy! These people seem to want life delivered to their door. And what is wrong with that? Everything.



“We must hold to what is difficult,” writes Rainer Maria Rilke. And if he could see how easy life has become for most Westerners in the century since he has made that remark, he would repeat it with more force and more passion. “Grab difficulty by the throat and strangle it!” Henry David Thoreau saw the perils of comfort a century before Rilke in the idle habits of his fellow Concordians. He built his own cabin in the woods as an antidote. What world would he see now, with leisure a way of life? Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness does not mean giving up inconvenience whenever possible.

Why? Why is difficulty so necessary? Why can’t we laze in the pillowed rowboat of modern life, gorging on sumptuous delicacies unknown to the most powerful of ancient kings, and cuddling up to our weakness? What is wrong with some well-earned comfort? Nothing, if it is earned through struggle and effort. And of course there are still places where the struggle for survival is very real. I do not begrudge those who struggle for existence the comfort that awaits at the end. But it is that struggle that makes us humans instead of slugs. Evolution occurs when a species is challenged by its environment. If we had not confronted cold weather or had to preserve food, we would have never learned how to build a fire. From a spiritual point of view, our burdens make us better people. The Buddha had to give up his comfortable palace life to find greater happiness and peace. He had to confront difficulty to find a way to surpass it. Our minds and bodies seek challenges and we must provide them, or become corrupted and weak.



There is often a subtle, unconscious rebellion against this creed of convenience. Mountain climbers usually cannot tell you in words why they climb. Weekend warriors helplessly defend their adventures against the laziness of the herd. But their bodies know, aching for time off the couch. And our bodies are not the only things threatened by laziness. Lazy thoughts, like “things must happen for a reason,” gratify many, but some remain unsatisfied. Some start their own new-age religions and fantastical philosophies, to challenge lazy ones that seem to swallow the entire culture whole. When asked why they went to such elaborate lengths to rebel against the norm, they often cannot give a satisfactory answer, unconscious of their need, and the smug, comfortable folks smile and shake their heads.

The need for difficulty is so hard-wired into our systems that when life presents no problems, we create our own, small and silly ones. Spoiled rich children moan about the horrors of bad skin and classwork. Intelligent people with nowhere to focus their talent spend their time complaining about the quality of films or music. Strong people with nothing to build waste their time destroying. And idle people with nothing to fear create fears. But these so-called difficulties are merely convenient distractions from the true work of development. What Thoreau called “the luxury that enervates and destroys nations” is destroying ours, as the mass of humanity continues to take the easy jobs, the easy beliefs, the easy values, the easy life. Comfortable people make wonderful slaves.

Aside from stopping our personal and cultural growth, by taking the path of comfort we doom ourselves to provisional happiness. As the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche emphatically states: “If you refuse to let your own suffering lie upon you even for an hour and if you constantly try to prevent and forestall all possible distress way ahead of time; if you experience suffering and displeasure as evil, hateful, worthy of annihilation, and as a defect of existence, then it is clear that [you harbor in your heart]… the religion of comfortableness. How little you know of human happiness, you comfortable…people, for happiness and unhappiness are sisters and even twins that either grow up together or, as in you case, remain small together.” I see friends finding their uppermost happiness in the incidental pleasures of watching television, finding the best alcoholic beverage, or repeating clich├ęd truisms. These happinesses are fine in their own way, but as the maximum practice of joy are small and unworthy of my friends, of any of us. And I think that deep down, those angry people who ask me what is wrong with comfort are afraid that somehow I have found a greater happiness that they don’t understand.



I am certainly as guilty as anyone of taking advantage of convenience. But I try to earn the greater happiness, what Aristotle called eudaimonia, again and again attempting to throw off the comfort I have been born into. I plan to die standing up, with nothing left unchallenged, the happiest man alive. And you? Will your happinesses remain small and comfortable, full of idle pleasures and received knowledge? Beware the perils of comfort, my friends, and earn the life you deserve.


First published at Hackwriters.

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