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An Uncomfortable Life

How are you feeling today?  Did you sleep well last night?  How is the chair you are sitting in, are the cushions okay?  Do you need to adjust the air conditioning or heating?  Comfortable now?  Good, let's begin!  We like our comfort in the modern world, we spend large amounts of money to make sure we are comfortable, not just physically, but emotionally and even intellectually. In some places we pass laws or make rules against the use of words which make some people uncomfortable including words relating to bodily functions and personal appearance (waste processing, procreation, excess body weight - I need to be careful here - I wouldn't want anyone to become uncomfortable).  In the USA and possibly other places, we sometimes make rules in children's sports so that nobody loses, after all we wouldn't want the losers (sorry, members of the less skilled team) to be uncomfortable.

Perhaps you have heard the following quote or some variation on it:

What does not kill me, makes me stronger.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, 1888
German philosopher (1844 - 1900)

For those who don't understand this (and there seem to be quite a few who have problems understanding it), it is simply an elegant way of saying that the difficulties in life all make you stronger / tougher and this applies in every way, physically, mentally and emotionally.  Hard physical labor, enduring pain (physical or emotional), even starvation which might make you physically weaker, toughens the mind and body, making you better prepared for future starvation.  All of these things and many others strengthen you in one way or another, unless of course it kills you (you wouldn't be very strong at that point).  We used to say that these things "build character" (though my friends would probably tell you that I'm already too much of a character :-)

Now consider this rewrite which I came up with (according to Google so did many others, and probably even more before Google was invented - guess I can't be original all the time):

What does not make you stronger, kills you.

This phrasing works too.  Anything about your life which isn't making you stronger / tougher, probably is making you weaker or ultimately, killing you.  Good examples of this: junk food, no exercise, not learning new things, etc.

I live what most would view as a very uncomfortable life. My bed at home is a sheet of plywood without a mattress, my house currently has no heating or cooling with interior temperatures ranging from 37 to 90 deg. F (3 to 32 deg. C), and while I own a very old car, I rarely use it, often walking or biking to get places. When I am not at home (which is a great deal of my life these days) I live out of a backpack, often sleep on the ground or the floor in the homes of people I visit, though guest beds are also common. When traveling in cities where I don't know anyone, I stay in hostels, typically dorms with up to nine other people in them, coming and going at all hours of the day and night, often exposing me to whatever germs are currently active in their home country.  I often work long hours of hard physical labor (building houses out of earth), hike up to 20 miles with a full pack in temperatures ranging from 20 to 110 deg. F (-6 to 45 deg. C).  While some of this is just for fun, much of the discomfort in my life is not so much planned as a consequence of decisions I made where I decided I could tolerate the uncomfortable aspects for a while in order to achieve a goal.  Ultimately, after the reason for tolerating the discomfort had gone away, I found that I had no need to change anything since I had gotten used to it and was no longer uncomfortable.  This is specifically true of my "sheet of plywood" bed and my unheated house.  Of course exercise is also uncomfortable and I do it with some regularity these days.  When I was a child, I was a bit fat and smart so I got picked on and made fun of as well, which was certainly uncomfortable.  Currently, I am sitting in China learning Mandarin (often 8 hours/day or more) and intellectually, this is probably the most difficult thing I have ever done.

What are some of the consequences of all this discomfort?

  • I can now sleep easily, anywhere, any time (couch, floor, seat on a train or bus), this wasn't the case ten years ago.
  • I am stronger, thinner, and faster than I have been in a long time.  Hiking in the mountains, even when I am taking it easy, I often pass young people less than half my age who appear to be fit, but are struggling.
  • When I walk out the door, I don't generally give much thought to how warm or cold it is.  I wear pretty much the same clothes regardless of the weather, usually only stopping to decide if I should bring rain gear.
  • I didn't like being picked on as a child, but it made me emotionally much tougher, and while I would not have chosen to go through it at the time, I definitely would not change it.
  • Obnoxious people and insults are more likely to get a laugh from me than an angry response.
  • I often (though not always) eat food solely for the nutritional content rather than the taste, and am probably healthier as a result.
  • Perhaps learning Mandarin will make me a little smarter, but at the very least (some day), I will be able to talk with many of the Chinese people I wouldn't otherwise be able to communicate with.

Of course you may prefer to be comfortable rather than doing the things I have done, but what are the consequences of comfort?

  • How well do you sleep at night?  If you require the "perfect" soft bed, you are far more likely to have trouble sleeping, the bed will never be quite right.
  • How is your tolerance for temperature?  What happens if the power fails?  In the USA, older people who have lived in temperature-controlled environments often die prematurely during power failures because many of them having lived temperature-controlled lives for so long, can't handle temperatures even a few degrees hotter or colder than the temperature settings in their house.  Ignoring the power failure issue, what if you want to do something outside, do you have to check the temperature to make sure it isn't too hot or cold for you?  If so, how much of your life are you losing because you can't take the heat (or cold).
  • How is your emotional response?  Do insults upset you?  Do you see insults where none are intended?  Do minor irritations make you angry?  These can be signs of emotional weakness / fragility.
  • Physical strength and endurance?  Lack of exercise results in muscular atrophy (you lose muscles / become weaker).
  • Bone density?  Lack of exercise results in osteoporosis (loss of bone density / weaker bones)
  • How smart are you?  I.Q. increases with every year of education you receive, though it is not necessary to actually attend school to achieve the result.  Many people find learning uncomfortable, probably because they are not good at it due to spending so little time learning.  Like so many things, learning gets easier with practice.

Living your softer, more comfortable life, are you actually more comfortable than I am?  When you are in your tightly controlled environment, you probably are, but what about when you go outside and have to face the temperature in the real world?  How about when you sleep in a hotel, camp out or stay at a friends house?  What if you need to lift something heavy or solve a difficult problem?  If you encounter emotionally difficult situations, insults, or obnoxious people in your life how well do you handle it?  The point here is that all the comfort in your life makes you softer, weaker, and less able to deal with the world around you in every regard.  The question ultimately is: are you going to be extremely comfortable in the cocoon you have created in your house / car / office / life, or are you going to suffer a little discomfort so you can be moderately comfortable everywhere and relatively immune to power failure, social unrest, natural disasters, financial issues and other problems, any of which could destroy your comfortable cocoon at any time?

Why don't you join me in living an uncomfortable life?


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