Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The difference between seeking comfort and avoiding discomfort

A couple of weeks ago I read a great post on the Art of Manliness that I cannot find today. It's not unusual to find great posts there; AofM is my favourite site to visit. The subject of the post was about how enduring discomforts will make us better, stronger men. I think that's right.

Here is a trivial example: every morning I squeegee down the sides of the shower stall. It's not hard work. What makes me balk at it is the few moments of being cold and wet, especially coming after taking a hot shower, which I consider one of the great sensual pleasures. The funny thing is that it feels really good to have stuck it out and have done it. In fact, if I make the process more uncomfortable by not letting myself to towel down and put on a  dressing gown first, the feeling of reward is even greater. And, quite frankly, a man who can't or won't do his duties because he doesn't like being wet and cold is useless.

But thinking about it got me thinking about a seemingly contradictory message the great cultures of the past send us. Every great warrior culture has stressed the virtue of enduring discomfort while simultaneously insisting that it is a virtue to make rich use of leisure. I discussed this with the Lemon Girl on our run this morning and she pointed out that our grandparents also made a virtue of enduring discomfort but worked hard to create a world in which we would never have to endure the same discomforts they did.

Years ago, I was part of a team that was doing trail maintenance for the Canadian Ski Marathon. We were doing the work in the early winter but before any heavy snow had accumulated. At one point we were working on a stretch of trail that ran over some boggy land and I walked over a hidden pocket of water and the ice broke and I sank in up to my waist. We were miles out in the woods and there was no choice but to endure. I was also with a team of men, including my father, and I was about 17 years old. It wasn't just that we were miles out in the woods so there was no choice, I also didn't want to let my discomfort show. My project rapidly became not just to endure but to show I was a man; and I wasn't sure I would succeed at this for pain of walking and clearing brush with two frozen feet and then walking and working with them as the frozen feeling went away was intense. But just that shift from simply enduring the pain to enduring the pain for a reason was huge. And, no, I don't mind admitting that the reason was one of pride, nor do I think there is anything wrong with that.

Another trivial example: my work involves wearing a suit and tie, when it gets really hot, I keep my jacket and tie on as a matter of pride. I endure the discomfort in order to maintain a standard of dress I think is important. I don't care whether others think it important, nor do I wish to impose my standard on them, I do this because it is a value I have chose for myself and, sounding like my Godfather now, it isn't that difficult to endure the discomfort. Or, to put it another way, the only price I pay for keeping the jacket and tie on is a little discomfort.

There is a flip side to this and that is how much of our leisure time is used up simply avoiding discomfort. How much time do we spend on electronic media simply to not be bored or to be distracted from responsibilities that discomfort us. Our warrior ancestors would have a feast, gone hunting, had or a great drunken orgy, or competed in a wild day of sports and wee seek distraction. There is something pathetic in that.

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