Comfort is highly prized in our culture, while discomfort is barely tolerated.
We buy comfortable clothes and comfortable shoes. Whenever possible our homes and work spaces are kept at a comfortable temperature. We have comfortable places to sit and comfortable places to sleep. Because we are surrounded by comfort, we have finely tuned radar for anything that causes us even a modicum of discomfort.
For some of us, we have become the princess in that fable of The Princess and the Pea — the classic fairy tale of the princess who goes to bed on twenty feather beds atop twenty mattresses, under which the queen has placed a single pea. In the morning, the princess says she was hardly able to sleep at all because of something hard in the bed and claims to be black and blue because of it. From this, the queen knows she is a real princess because no one else could be that sensitive.
I sometimes wonder if some of us have become the princess, and any discomfort — even caused by something as small and insignificant as a pea — is reason for an endless stream of complaint. While hypersensitivity is a virtue in this fairy tale, I’m not sure it plays out that well in real life because the greater your sensitivity to discomfort, the greater your need for relief. The greater your need for relief, the more susceptible you are to comfort-seeking excessities.
There are quite a few conditions that produce distress and unease. There are loneliness, anxiety, fear, guilt, boredom, and restlessness. These are irritation, frustration, and agitation. I have heard each of these given as a reason why people run to their particular excessity. They seek comfort from the distress and unease — the discomfort they feel has interrupted their lives, their sleep, their peace of mind — that have left them figuratively black and blue.
They want relief, and they want it now.
But is that really the role of comfort? Is comfort meant to be a universal and immediate panacea for every uneasy thought or interpreted distress?
When I was a new father, I thought my job was to rush in to comfort my child at the slightest sign of distress. It was difficult for me to hear him cry. I wanted to do something. Wisely, my wife reminded me that sometimes the best something to do is nothing. Children often are fussy and irritable “just because.” They need to learn how to work through those feelings on their own. Sticking a pacifier or a bottle in their mouths or picking them up at every turn or giving in to every demand does not teach children to be adaptable; it teaches them to be dependent. It teaches a child that comfort comes from outside, instead of from within.
When children are young, they are dependent on adults for just about everything. As they get older, however, they begin to learn how to handle some of their needs. This fosters their sense of independence and identity. By letting children learn how to handle their discomfort, they will grow and mature, learning how to weather the inevitable storms of life without looking for the quickest or most convenient way out.
Please do not mistake me here. I am not advocating depriving children of comfort. Far from it! For I have also seen what happens when comfort is chronically denied a child. Each occasion of distress and unease is geometrically heightened by the failure to comfort the time before. Panic and anxiety set in, producing a world where there is no minor discomfort because every discomfort is sucked into that black hole of neglect. When an excessity is grabbed on to in order to counterbalance that black hole, there isn’t enough Gotta Have It! activity possible to fill the gap.
Each end of the spectrum produces an excessive response. Grow up with too much comfort from the outside, and we develop intolerance to any discomfort or an inability to generate comfort from the inside. Grow up with too little comfort, and we develop an insatiable need to fill that void.