In Praise of Comfort Zones

If you spend time on social media, as I do, you probably have come across “comfort zone” posts. These are often accompanied by inspirational photos and quotes from motivational speakers in headsets with flashy smiles like Tony Robbins. They claim that to achieve anything worthwhile in life, you have to push yourself beyond what you’re used to, including physical, emotional, and spiritual limits. If you don’t step out of your comfort zone, they warn, you will spend your life in ruin and regret.

Sometimes, these posts take on a moralistic tone, as if by not throwing caution to the wind, taking the plunge, and damning the torpedoes, as it were, you are somehow inferior and irremediable, an object of scorn.

The problem with this kind of thinking is that it encourages people not just to do things they would not do normally (for fun), but to act out of character. This is where bucket lists come from, because, after all, you’ve only got one life. You can’t let a little thing like the edge of a cliff or an alligator’s maw stop you from fulfilling your dream or taking a selfie.

But instead of inspiring people to acts of courage, moving out of your comfort zone is often done from fear, either of missing out or being ridiculed. I hear my father’s admonition about not jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge just because my friends might be doing it, but if it was true back then, it is just as true now. Not that I wanted to hear it, of course.

By one measure of how far society has changed, think of Trump’s inauguration when the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sang America the Beautiful. The second verse ends with, “Confirm thy soul in self-control, Thy liberty in law!” It struck me as I was listening to it. Where do you find self-control? Not in the news, which is filled with reports of violent crime, war, corrupt business practices, and greed on a grand scale (e.g., the Panama Papers). In fact, thanks to German Marxists on one hand and French deconstructionists on the other, self-control as a virtue is derided as outmoded and oppressive. Who said the Germans and French can’t get along?

Unthinking people have internalized this attitude, which shows itself in acts of rudeness. Spend time on airplanes or at airports and you’ll know what I mean (Smarter Travel). But much has been made already about the loss of civility and responsibility in society.

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Comfort zones are different. I believe they are related to a centered self, one that is determined genetically at conception and formed organically through the years, especially in early childhood. This self is the place from which the individual interacts with others and the world around them. It is home. Crossing its boundary is not an act of courage but, if intentional, what Aristotle called rashness.

“The rash man is considered to be both a boaster and pretender to courage; at any rate he wishes to seem as the courageous man really is in his attitude toward fearful situations, and therefore imitates him where he can.”

Stepping out of your comfort zone in the social media sense is often an act of rashness instead of courage. It can be foolhardy and permanent. It can be contagious, too, infecting not just the young and impressionable but those of us who are older and impressionable.

If we do not act from our centered self, we will act from our self-centered self, trampling others in our rush to find fulfillment. “Scandal” comes from the Greek skandalon and means stumbling or being off center. When I am out of my comfort zone, I am more likely to act in scandalous ways, which may sound romantic but isn’t.

That’s why a centered self is the best self. And, on a practical level, the reason for a cigarette and hot bath.

You do what you have to do.

Haven’t had enough? Go to Robert Brancatelli.

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