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!