A week or so ago, in one of our email exchanges, Jeff got me thinking about a choice that was first introduced to him during the humanities program at Davidson. And that question is: “do we go out and experience the world, risking suffering, or do we stay in our “comfort zone,” at home or at any place that feels like home?” He said that Dr. Epes pointed out that experience can include reading a book we would not otherwise expose ourselves to (a plug for the Humes program, ha, ha) but Jeff and I both agree it’s unfamiliar experiences in real life that are crucial.
Take us with a grain of salt, though, because we’re both commencing extended stays abroad and are inclined to think our choices are the right ones, so before I segue into a summary of my thoughts on the subject of comfort v. suffering, I’d like to hear your opinions. Mom and Dad? Mrs. Waterman? Friends? When does going outside your comfort zone go too far? Is that even possible? What is the role of that sense of comfort and home? Does home have to be a place, or can it be a person/people? Can somewhere that was once a place of discomfort become a home? Or the other way around? What should the balance between comfort and suffering be? And let’s talk about intellectual comfort v. suffering, too; just like I’m always seeking new physical experiences, I’m always pushing my mind and hardly ever let it settle into a comfortable place. Even the movies I choose to watch for pleasure are thought-provoking.
Even the amount I’ve been thinking about this topic and my decision to try to start a discussion on the blog is an example of my inclination toward suffering. (Not suffering as in excruciating pain, mind you, but… I might be confused about that boundary too, being a distance runner. Ha.)
Because I was adequately articulate on this subject in recent correspondence, here are the highlights:
To Jeff, in response to the original message:
“The reason I’m uncomfortable here at times– certainly not suffering; how can you, in Florence?– but definitely uncomfortable, is that I like order, I like familiarity, and I like things that make sense. Essentially, I like my life to run smoothly and in a way that I can easily make meaning out of it. I’m scared of the silliest things here! I’m apprehensive about buying a train ticket and traveling solo, and the only reason is that I’ve never done it before. I get so, so nervous about the marathon because it’s complicated to get high mileage in such a small city (and to keep my pace slow to prevent burning out when I feel compelled to go fast, because everything else is moving fast… but I’ll touch upon that in a moment.) I’m nervous both walking and running in the street alone because of the culture of men catcalling American students, even though I’m conservatively dressed. And mostly I’m uncomfortable because I don’t have the vocabulary to communicate even the most basic thoughts and ideas. I think we need to strike a balance between comfort and suffering. I am most certainly daring to experience, as are you, and I’d like to hear your thoughts on this once you’ve lived in France for a few weeks, but after a certain period of daring experience, I’d like to go home.”
“I’ve been contemplating the idea of comfort v. suffering quite a lot in the past couple of days, and come to the conclusion that we (you and I; most Davidson students) put ourselves through a lot of ‘suffering,’ namely, pushing ourselves outside our comfort zones, setting lofty goals, striving for self-improvement, etc. The idea of comfort for us registers as apathy or complacency. But I’ve been thinking and I decided that, like most other dualities in life, we need to strike a balance between them. If we keep pushing and working and striving, we’ll run ourselves down. When we take time off to be comfortable, we need to be fully present in that moment and do good things for ourselves. For me at least, I have a lot easier time being present when I’m studying or working toward a goal, than I do when I’m supposed to be taking a break. Instead, that break will be spent planning my next move towards achievement. What I was thinking about as a good example of comfort was last Christmas break (sophomore year). I completely chilled out with the family, slept in, cooked and ate, went on adventures with Dan, spent hours in bookstores, and generally did as I pleased. What I did not do was create a battle plan for second semester, and I’m so glad I didn’t, because that break is one of my best recent memories. In Italy, my consciousness of ‘suffering’ is heightened, in the cultural discomfort, so my appreciation for comfort is sharper. I realized that allowing myself to be comfortable isn’t slacking. It’s what I plan to do, and can’t wait to do, when I return to the United States this winter.”
I wrote each of those messages almost a week ago. The problem with my very diplomatic proclamation of “it’s very simple, you see, you just have to strike a balance” is that since then, Florence has become more of a home, and feels more comfortable every day. As I fall more and more deeply in love with this city, I’m already feeling nostalgic for the day I’ll have to leave it behind.
So tell me, O Wise Readers, what are your thoughts? Comfort or suffering?
P.S. The red peppers are my favorite picture I’ve taken so far.