I am a bit of a self-help junkie. I read books on personal development, well-being, job hunting and dating. Titles such as The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, Feel the Fear and Do It Any Way, The Jane Austen Guide to Dating, What Colour is Your Parachute’ and F**k It: The Ultimate Spiritual Way fill my bookshelves.
I get very involved in these books. I attack the exercises in them with gusto. I’ve identified the petals of The Flower: a picture of my dream job; I’ve set my ten standards for the ideal relationship; I am an Elizabeth Bennett suitable to a number of Mr Darcys, Mr Bingleys or Henry Tilneys; I repeat mantras such as “ships are safe in the harbour but that is not what ships are made for” and most of the time I just say “f**k it”.
These books have helped or continue to help me get out of my comfort zone, to start conversations with strangers, to say, “Yes”,, to ask more questions, to let go of the cares, to accept insecurity and to (hopefully) tell the difference between a man who is a keeper and one who isn’t. The first flush of improving oneself is exciting. My adrenaline is pumping, I feel invincible. It’s like I’ve unlocked the secret to the Universe.
And then rolls in the discomfort. What I’ve noticed is that I’m good at the getting out of my comfort zone bit for a while, but I am less good at staying there. We are constantly bombarded with messages to “try new things”, “meet new people”, “go on adventures”, “change our lives”, but I tend to find the follow-up is not so effective. These messages don’t really tell us how to navigate the waters of conflicts, failure and vulnerability. Even if you change your life, you will always face discomfort.
Moving out of a flat share into my own apartment was probably my ultimate getting out of my comfort zone example. It was euphoric to think that I could live in complete freedom. But then I had to live with the discomfort of poor insulation and disrupted sleep as a result of the noise from my upstairs neighbours. Meeting new people rejuvenated my social life, but then I found myself attracted to people whose belief systems strongly opposed mine, or being disappointed by rejection. Exploring a foreign city on my own satisfied my thirst for something new but then came the sadness of doing it alone.
The discomfort that comes with life not going as planned is part of living the life that we desire. It’s easy to try new things, but it’s hard to sustain them especially when we reach an impasse. We can’t bear the noise anymore, we find ourselves angered by another person’s point of view, or we are on top of the Empire State building, alone. We instinctively think that the safer option is better for us: move out of the apartment; stop engaging in the conversation; vow never to go on holiday on our own again.
Buddhism believes in the idea that we are all one; that there is no separation between us as individuals and us and the Earth. The ‘I’ is just an illusion. Perhaps appreciating that we are connected in some way forces us to try harder with one another, our environment and with ourselves. When we are confronted with discomfort, we need to use the virtues of tolerance, compromise, empathy and civility to cushion our journey through it. But we must go through it. And, most importantly, we have to recognize that this discomfort is part of living the good life. The vegan and the meat-eater can have a valuable and sustainable exchange of views; neighbours can respect each other’s privacy, space and lifestyle; the lonely traveller can feel proud that she is pursuing her dream.
One book that also sits on my bookshelf is A.C. Grayling’s The Meaning of Things: Applying Philosophy to Life. When it comes to perseverance, he writes: “All goes swimmingly; then suddenly one seems to regress, to lose what advance has been made. At this point most people give up. But if they were to persist they would find that each dip is followed by a higher rise, and the overall pattern is upward and onward, making true the Latin motto, Per ardua ad astra. “
It’s natural to feel uncomfortable when trying something new or having to deal with the unexpected. Even if we cannot get comfortable with it, we can at least keep going and let it pass through us. We will end up somewhere new, and possibly with the stars.