Posted: October 31st, 2013

Please Make Yourself Uncomfortable

By, Fr. Mark Sietsema
Don't confuse comfort with well-being, either physically or spiritually ...

Falling down—and the injuries it causes—is the leading cause of death among the elderly in our country.  Old people in Okinawa fall far less often, and this is one of the reasons their average lifespan exceeds ours by so much.  Why do they suffer fewer falls?  Because in a traditional Okinawan home, there is almost no furniture.  Meals are taken while sitting on a mat on the floor. Okinawans—even the elderly—are squatting down and getting up 20 or 30 times a day.  As a result their lower body stays strong even into old age, and they keep a well-tuned sense of balance.  No chairs translates into a longer and spryer life. 

Would you make that trade?  Would you give up the comfort of chairs in order to add some years—quality years—to your life? 

It turns out that many of the creature comforts of modernity are actually bad for our health!  Not just chairs, but shoes, soft mattresses, elevators, autos, and books—all these contribute to the rise of diseases like flat feet, plantar fasciitis, back pain, diabetes, osteoporosis, and near-sightedness.  So many of the chronic problems that send Americans to the doctor over and over, these problems hardly exist among poorer people who walk around barefoot, sit and sleep on the floor, carry heavy loads back from the market, and spend their free time talking with neighbors rather than curled up on the couch with a book.

Harvard biologist Daniel Lieberman has researched the “mismatch diseases” that arise because our lifestyles do not match our bodies, shaped as they have been over the millennia for a very different kind of survival.  His conclusion: Don’t confuse comfort with well-being. That which is comfortable for us is not always so good for us.

So do yourself a favor: live like the people in Earth’s “Blue Zones.”  Researcher Dan Buettner, who studied the longest-living populations on the planet, tells us that these folks keep moving all day long, eat more beans than meat, go to religious services weekly, and don’t indulge in a lot of the creature comforts we find so addictive here in America.  Embrace a life of physical work, sweat, fatigue, and hunger: you will live a lot longer with fewer aches and pains in the long run.

What is true of our bodies is also true of our spirits.  Psychologist M. Scott Peck notes that discomfort, suffering, pain is necessary for any spiritual growth.  “The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.”

Pain, anguish, difficulty in life, he explains, are the things that develop courage and wisdom within us.  Unless we avoid feelings of suffering; in that case, we trade the legitimate pain of life’s hard knocks for the greater pain of mental illness.  For, in Dr. Peck’s professional opinion, most forms of mental illness are due to a person sidestepping the painful process of spiritual growth.

“It is good that I have been afflicted” said the Psalmist (119:71), “so that I might learn your statutes.”  It is an amazing thing to hear a human being give thanks for a grievous problem.  But it happens!  There are people who find cause for gratitude in some terrible troubles: terminal illness, abusive relationships, unemployment, failure.  But these are people who see life as a challenge to grow and become wiser and more loving.  They embrace the temporary discomfort of change and uncertainty in order to avoid the chronic pain of passivity, self-pity, or abusing substances to dull dark emotions.

“Count it all joy,” says the Apostle James (1:2-4), “when you meet various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.  And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”  Saint Paul says something similar to the Romans (5:3-5): “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.”

What will you be thankful for on this Thanksgiving Day?  In the Divine Liturgy, there is a mystical prayer in which the priest thanks God "for all things of which we know and of which we know not, for blessings seen and unseen that have been bestowed upon us.” Sometimes those unknown, unseen blessings are the things in life that we find most uncomfortable, either in body or in spirit.  Yet within that discomfort there can be the promise of our developing a greater strength, a better sense of balance, and a life more abundant.

Thanks be to God for all things!  And a Happy Thanksgiving to you and your loved ones as you gather around the table (or on the floor!) for your feast of gratitude this year.

# # #