What Makes Us Uncomfortable Might Be Just What We Need

Oct 11, 2015
Originally published on October 18, 2015 8:00 pm

I was thinking about the word "comfortable" today.

Comfortable — or just as likely, its good friend uncomfortable — has become the preferred way for many people to talk about something they don't like. Instead of saying, "I don't like something," "I don't want to do something" or even, heaven forbid, "I don't like you," they say, "I am not comfortable with that."

I can understand it. It poses the same challenge and opportunity as other phrases that some people deride as politically correct. In its most positive light, using "comfortable" instead of another word is about courtesy.

It's a way of avoiding needless hurt and offense. Instead of saying, "I don't want my kid watching scary movies at your house, and oh by the way, what's wrong with you that you let your kids watch them?" you say, "I'm sorry. I'm just not comfortable with sleepovers yet."

It can also be a way of smoothing over a power dynamic that's not in your favor. Instead of saying, "I don't like this assignment and I don't want to work with this other person," you say, "I'm not comfortable with that."

It can also be about resisting change. Instead of saying, "I don't like or understand these people and I don't want them around me," you say ... well, you get the idea.

Can I just tell you? The problem, as I see it, is that it elevates comfort — not truth, not efficiency, not what's optimal or best — to our highest aspiration. We become used to being comfortable, and this works for a while ... until someone is willing to say or do the very thing that has not been said or done, usually someone who cares not at all for other people's comfort.

I thought of this when I read about this year's Nobel laureate for literature, the Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexievich. I say "journalist," but the word doesn't fully capture the cinematic and poetic quality of her work. The Swedish Academy, which awards the prize, described it as "a monument to suffering and courage in our time." Alexievich, who was born in Ukraine but lives in Russia now, writes about extremely challenging subjects important to that region, such as Voices from Chernobyl — about the enduring effects of the 1986 nuclear disaster. That has not endeared her to Russian authorities.

I was struck by what Alexievich said about her work at a press conference shortly after the announcement of her prize. As recounted in a piece in The Washington Post, she was asked about statements that her work shows that she hates the Russian people. She replied: "I think that nobody loves the truth. I write what I think."

Alexievich knows she makes people uncomfortable. but her purpose, she says, is that she loves her country and wants it to be better, instead of comfortable with where it is. And I think that perspective could be useful in many of our political and cultural fights.

It cannot have escaped anyone's attention that much of our political dynamic is being driven by each side preferring whatever solution will inconvenience its own supporters least, not necessarily what's best or most effective. Is that because we feel entitled to be comfortable, or the world has changed so much in so many ways for so many people that we think we can't take any more discomfort?

What might happen if, instead of demanding comfort for ourselves when we face our biggest problems, we accepted the discomfort as the price of living in a dynamic but complex world. What would that look like?

I don't really know — but I think I could be comfortable with that.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Finally today, I was thinking about the word comfortable. Comfortable - or, just as likely, its good friend uncomfortable - has become the preferred way for many people to talk about something they don't like. Instead of saying, I don't like something, I'd want to do something, or even - heaven forbid - I don't like you, they say, I'm not comfortable with that.

I can understand it. It poses the same challenge and opportunity as other phrases that some people deride as politically correct. And its most positive light, using comfortable instead of another word is about courtesy. It's a way of avoiding needless hurt and offense. Instead of saying, I don't want my kid watching scary movies at your house, and, oh, by the way, what's wrong with you that you let your kids watch them, you say, I'm sorry. I'm just not comfortable with sleepovers yet.

It could also be a way of smoothing over a power dynamic that's not in your favor. Instead of saying, I don't like this assignment, and I don't want to work with this person, you say, I'm not comfortable with that. It can also be about resisting change. Instead of saying, I don't like or understand these people, and I don't want them around me, you say - well, you get the idea.

Can I just tell you - the problem as I see it is that it elevates comfort - not truth, not efficiency, not what's optimal or best - to our highest aspiration. We become used to being comfortable, and this works for a while, until someone is willing to say or do the very thing that has not been said or done - usually someone who cares not at all for other people's comfort.

I thought of this when I read about this year's Nobel laureate for literature, the Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexievich. I say journalist, but the word doesn't fully capture the cinematic and poetic quality of her work. The Swedish Academy, which awards the prize, described it as, quote, "a monument of suffering encourage in our time," unquote. Alexievich, who was born in Ukraine, but lives in Russia now, writes about extremely challenging subjects important to the region, such as "Voices From Chernobyl," about the enduring effects of the 1986 nuclear disaster. That has not endeared her to Russian authorities.

I was struck by what Alexievich said about her work at a press conference shortly after the announcement of her prize. As recounted in a piece in The Washington Post, she was asked about statements that her works shows that she hates the Russian people. She replied, quote, "I think that nobody loves the truth. I write what I think," unquote. Alexievich knows she makes people uncomfortable, but her purpose, she says, is that she loves her country and wants it to be better, instead of just comfortable with where it is. And I think that perspective could be useful in many of our political and cultural fights.

It cannot have escaped anyone's attention that much of our political dynamic is being driven by each side preferring whatever solution will inconvenience its own supporters least - not necessarily what's best or most effective. Is that because we feel entitled to be comfortable or the world has changed so much in so many ways for so many people that we think we can't take any more discomfort? What might happen if instead of demanding comfort for ourselves when we face our biggest problems, we accepted the discomfort as the price of living in a dynamic but complex world? What would that look like? I don't really know, but I think I could be comfortable with that. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.