Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Trouble With Being Comfortable

"If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair." - C.S. Lewis

"This is no time for ease and comfort.  It is time to dare and endure." - Winston Churchill

"A scholar who cherishes the love of comfort is not fit to be deemed a scholar." - Lao Tzu

A friend--one whose friendship I hold as dear as anything else in the world--recently expressed concern over applying for the next rung in her ladder of career success due to what she saw as an inability to speak out for herself.  She said that she felt quite able to advocate for others, but she wasn't so sure of her ability to self-advocate.

You know, there are times in every friendship where the words "horse shit" must be uttered.  This was one of them, and I feel this is such a common issue that I need to talk about the horse manure with some degree of publicity.

Lookit, Lisa (not her name, but she knows who she is, and she's the only one who needs to) has done some amazing things in the time I've known her.  She's escaped abuse.  She's put herself through college, earning a baccalaureate degree with two majors while raising the same number of children.  She's landed a peach of a job, launched a relationship with a great guy, and bought a house. She's made the house a home for her kids, teaching them to cherish all sorts of activities including--yes, writing.

Sounds like the perfect American Dream story, right?

The problem with the American Dream?  Once you get to where you were dreaming of, you want more.

The good thing about the American Dream?  Once you get to where you were dreaming of, you realize you're deserving of more. 

Lisa's problem is that she wants more.  She deserves more.

No, I take that back.  That isn't Lisa's problem.  I think that Lisa's problem is that now she's comfortable with where she is.

She's not alone.  How many of us, in closing the great circle on the dreams of our youth, settle into wonderfully fulfilled lives of never-growth?

My main theory, and the premise of the Grumpy Dean work, is that growth/change is difficult.  The oyster only makes a pearl when something is irritating it, I'm told.  The first human to discover fire, I suspect, managed the great feat because he (or she) was cold.  Necessity drives invention, we all say, and yet we think kids will go to school and learn the curriculum of the cosmos just because they're happy to do so.  First-hand experience here--they won't.  Learning, change, effort, and achievement only happen because the alternative is more painful.  Wresting ourselves into success is hard to do, and so we tend to only succeed when the alternative is harder.

A lot of people succeed at career college for that very reason.  Life where they were sucked, and so they were willing to take on a regime of learning in order to improve their circumstance. It's not easy; trust me, I see that in their eyes every day of the week.  I hear it in their stories.

And yet, they succeed.  In spite of their challenges, though if you see where I'm going with this, you might also agree that it may be because of their challenges that they get there.  

The biggest problem we have, though, is when we succeed at something that was difficult.  All of a sudden we're comfortable.  We may be suddenly elevated to a position where the bills are actually paid.  Competent health care is actually available, rather than dependent on whom is on shift at the free clinic.  Maybe an actual retirement fund opportunity shows up.


Heavy stuff, that is, to someone who hasn't had it.

At the same time we're feeling a bit of comfort, we're also remembering the struggles of getting there.  And, frankly, there's nothing wrong, in my humble opinion, with the normal desire to sit, rest, and enjoy a successful life for a while. But when you've worked as hard as Lisa has, I think that the only thing that really must eventually happen is a continuation of the desire. 

It doesn't get easier, though.  In fact, it gets harder.  College efforts serve a good analogy here.  It's no secret that Freshmen are the most likely to drop out.  Why?  Because they've gotten to the next rung of the ladder and realize it's harder than they were used to, or than they were expecting.  Those who don't drop out graduate, and many of those move on up to graduate school.  In grad school, it's no secret that the four to six month bracket sees the greatest number of dropouts.  Why?  Because--well, you've already heard next rung, harder, and so on.  PhD programs are the same, though they also have another bump when students start writing that dreaded dissertation.

It's important, though, that each level of school builds in greater challenge.  If it didn't, students wouldn't get the hidden lesson of increasing scholarship.  It isn't just about learning an academic topic, after all.  It's about going from the level of high school student, where to be successful you do what your teacher tells you, to the level of PhD, where by the end you've successfully designed and carried out your own scholarly research project and published the results, in successive steps.  It's an ever-building process, not just topically but also in our ability to stand on our own academic feet.

Yes, I know.  I didn't just break that metaphor; I bashed its face on the sidewalk several times and then threw rocks at it.

Back to topic, though.  Life is like college in that way.  I believe that we're supposed to go through a mental and emotional growing process even after we stop growing physically (taller, not necessarily wider).  Goals are there to give us temporary markers and even resting points along the way, but when we get comfortable at one we quit reaching for the next.  And then, we stop growing.

Don't stop growing.  Don't let yourself get comfortable.


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