Thursday, September 27, 2007

Creature Comforts: allowing and denying ourselves in modern society (Part 1)

I lay on the floor of my best friend’s apartment, my cheek resting on my left hand, the other hand clutching a hair dryer. On the floor beside me, swaddled in a green fleece blanket, lay my friend’s six-week-old daughter, Louisa. My husband and I were taking the baby’s portrait and were amused to learn that the heat and white noise from the hair dryer would calm her enough so the camera could capture her in a peaceful moment. I held the hair dryer about a foot from her head and gently coaxed the warm air back and forth. Her soft hair lifted in response to the dryer as she wrinkled her brow, a reaction to this new sensation. Then she closed her eyes and cooed. We all laughed, reveling in her comfort. Louisa was still and peaceful as the camera shutter fired loudly. Not even the large soft-box flash could stir her now. As I lay next to her on the floor, I realized that as an adult I yearn for the same creature comforts of warmth and white noise. Watching this tiny infant beside me confirmed the notion that we as humans instinctively yearn for, indeed demand, comfort from the moment we leave the safety of the womb.

For all that, there are these little things we like to call “rites of passage” that we must go through in order to grow as humans. Whether society, family, or our egos mandate it, undertaking these rites undoubtedly involves facing a fear or multiple fears, and coming out on the other side a stronger, more capable adult. For some, the simple act of leaving the house and going into public is a rite. For others, it is climbing Mount Everest.

Several days ago, I happened to catch an episode of “Oprah”. The topic of discussion was the story of Chris McCandless, the young man who journeyed into the Alaskan wilderness to abandon his capitalist roots and live off the land alone, an act many of us in North America would find bold, if not asinine. Incidentally, he did not survive for long in this state, dying of starvation. To find out why, I recommend you read the book about Chris’ journey called “Into the Wild,” by Jon Krakauer. It is truly riveting. Incidentally, Krakauer was a guest on Oprah’s show that day, as was actor Sean Penn, who has recently made a movie based on the story. When asked what they wanted people to take away from the book and movie, both Krakauer and Penn emphasized the need for our society to let go of our comfort addiction and do something meaningful with our lives. The idea of comfort addiction gave me pause, and led me to ponder the paradoxical nature of allowing and denying ourselves comfort in modern society.

Undoubtedly, the sheer popularity of the Chris McCandless story and the can’t-shake-it reactions to it are a result of our growing need as North Americans, during such unstable times, to get back in touch with our natural state - that primal moment when our warm, sopping wet bodies entered the frigid air of the delivery room. Some destiny was waiting for us “out there” in the wild, and we went for it, and have never gone back or been the same since. This is essentially the first of many rites of passage that we must surpass throughout our earthly existence. Beyond this point, however, we generally have a choice as to which and how many risks and adventures we wish to take. And this is what Krakauer and Penn were getting at: that many of us are opting for the cushy comforts of our modern lives in lieu of living full, daring lives.

The paradox in this argument lies in the baby’s reaction to the hair dryer and my empathy with it. If we instinctively yearn for comfort, why should we deny this instinct and purposefully force ourselves into murky waters? After all, in our plush society (and yes, those were very plush chairs the guests on Oprah were sitting in), we actually have to make an effort anymore to be uncomfortable. Going into the wild (or other such daring acts) can actually cost a lot of money these days! So how can we help but opt for the comfort that surrounds us? And is there a happy medium?

I will continue this discussion in my next post.
In the meantime, please share your thoughts on this topic!


Anonymous said...

I recently decided to raise a few little chicky chickens. This wild, wonderful idea was one in a series of nutty plans to become more sustainable and eventually live off the land. I was proud of myself for being motivated finally, and looking forward to fresh yummy eggs.

I found a free coop on Craigslist and even found a woman in a town nearby willing to show me her set-up and offer advise. My roommate and I loaded the coop and it has been sitting on my patio for over a week.

I walked down my giant hill to clear a space in the for for the "gals" as they would be roaming free during the day... Then, it hit me. Damn, this is hard! I don't have the right tools! Oh shit, that spider is huge! What if there's a Black Widow under that log? A mouse scittered across my feet...

I trudged back up the hill to assess from the deck above. After thinking it over, I found the challanges of the landscape and creatures endearing. "You mean there are things out there that could bite and hurt HUMANS?" "You mean you walk up and down that hill and those rickety rotten steps to clean up chicken poop?"

So it's no life in the Alaska bush- but it's one step in being a little out of the comfort zone. No more trips to the grocery store or neighbors house for eggs. And no death by starvation...

Larissa said...

This is a great story, Hallie, and thanks for sharing. These are the kind of experiences I want to talk about in my second part of this topic. There is a happy medium, I believe, and as long as we're making an effort, that counts too! All the best,

Karl - Your Work Happiness Matters said...

Hey Larissa,

Great topic. I look forward to the next post. I've struggled with this same dilemma. I want to be able to enjoy my life everywhere I go, but I can't let go of the fact that there are better jobs and more exciting moments if I only tackle my fear and take a risk to find something better. It's the human struggle that we all have to deal with.

We should teach ourselves that we don't need everything to be perfect. But you are right, we are comfort creatures and allowing ourselves to feel good is not a bad thing.


Dr. Russell A. Spinney said...

Creating comfort zones
- it sounds like it is something we humans instinctively do from the moment we are babies crying out and as parents and adults as we seek to understand those cries; then shelter, feed, hold, and burp our children (I have no children, but I have been helping my sister with her two kids for over four years now).
In my work, I am interested in this problem of fear. So these posts pique my interests for several reasons.
From my own experiences, especially traveling and learning other languages, there is this line that we confront in our lives, that is, between the realms of comfort and security that we have generated and that wilderness, the unknown, the out of control, the foreign and the strange. For a long time, I feel like I have been crossing back and forth, only to come back to those feelings of familiarity. More and more, though, I like staying outside the zone. On this trip to Germany, I have packed much less and plan to wander more. Just to throw a monkey wrench into this though: maybe I am just becoming comfortable with my German wanderings; making the world comfortable, familiar and secure seem to be part of my movements.
From another angle, what is happening to our world as we shelter ourselves more and more in gated communities and material living standards that contribute to environmental problems, global warming, endangering the lives of others far removed and more exposed and a level of species extinction, which some such as the author of "The World Without US", Alan Weisman, believe is approaching the scale of the Permian? Stepping out of our comfort zones, from this angle, is important to consider different ways of living and bringing our comfort in balance with the world's. Even struggling with that garden or raising those chickens in a powerful way to take a good step.

Larissa said...

I appreciate your sentiments about this topic. The irony is that some people find comfort in being uncomfortable, most likely because of personality traits or the fact that they have simply put themselves (or have been forced) into many awkward positions or out on a limb, so to speak. So if we even try to do this in the simplest ways during our daily lives, new doors and chances to continue to stay out of our comfort zones will present themselves. Cheers!

Larissa said...

You bring up a good point in your comment: that even when we are "out there" we still instinctively seek out comfort and familiarity. I know when I travel abroad I always look for similarities between the people I see and meet and the culture I am visiting. Of course I look for differences too, but it is the similarities that I hold onto for a little bit of comfort so far from home.

I look forward to reading your travel blog and your thoughts about fear, etc.
Bon Voyage!

Anonymous said...

Hi Larissa,

I am a new reader to your blog and had to comment on Into the Wild. I read it recently for my book club, what an amazing book! It has certainly stuck with me, I've recommended it to everyone I know. I also saw that episode of Oprah (which I recorded specifically because of who was on that day) and I loved the comment Chris's sister made about him: that he didn't care what others thought about him, what was most important to him was what he thought of himself. I think that is a great lesson for us all, that shift in perspective... "This above all, to thine own self be true." If you are familiar with the Sundance series Iconoclasts, I believe the season premiere (later this month) features Sean Penn and Jon Krakauer. Also, as someone who appreciates music, you should check out the soundtrack for the movie. Eddie Vedder did it and it is awesome! Looking forward to your next post on this. Take care and keep up the good work!

Larissa said...

Thank you so much for reading and commenting. Great thoughts and suggestions! I thought Carine McCandless's comment on Oprah's show was incredible too. I think everyone watching realized at that moment the beauty of her describing Chris so eloquently even though she was barely able to get to know him during his short life - a true sibling connection. Being true to oneself is certainly at the heart of this issue. I will be sure to check out the movie soundtrack and Iconoclasts. Thanks again!

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