Comfort is Not the Goal

I take cold showers. I’ve found that the perfect temperature is that point where it is painful for a good 30 seconds after which the pain fades to an awareness of cold that is just this side of bearable. It is one of the many absurd things I do in order to hack minimal gains in health and productivity. The alleged health benefits of cold showers are compelling, but to be completely honest, the only reason I started taking them was because I read an article about how James Bond takes cold showers. I finished it and thought, “whelp, guess I take cold showers now.” A daily cold shower clears my head, has benefits of vitalizing my organs (probably) and most certainly wakes me up in the morning. I started taking cold showers because 007 does but that wasn’t enough to make me keep it up. Like many of my life realizations, cold showers started as almost a joke, but they then woke me up to a new philosophy of life.

In high school, among life lessons about the never-knowable nature of the opposite sex, strategies to hide drinking from my mother, how to bust balls, and any other number of useful skills, I also managed to learn a little math. One lesson in particular has surfaced recently from the deep pools of forgotten knowledge in my mind. Imagine two lines: one straight and another angled toward the first so if both lines go off into the distance, at some point they will cross. Our teacher asked us to calculate where the angled line would be half the distance to the other line. We did and then he asked us to calculate half the distance again. And again. And again. Then he asked us this: if the angled line always only gets half the distance to the other, at what point would the lines cross?

I’ve violated several assumptions in my simplification, I’m sure, but the point is that the lines will never cross. The two lines go off into infinity, always getting closer and never meeting. This still hurts my head. Forever is not a concept our monkey brains are comfortable with because it makes us consider our own finite nature. This frustrating lesson came to mind recently as I was thinking about my goals. What is my goal in life? To be happy? In so many things, we set our goals as that line off in the distance somewhere. Believing that something is attainable even when it is unreachable is a trap we all fall into all the time. We’ll be happy when we weigh x. We’ll be satisfied when we have y in the bank. We’ll be comfortable when our house has z square feet. I’ve seen hamsters on wheels with better self-control against futile gestures.

Take parenthood for example.

For me, fatherhood was a big goal. Perhaps my primary goal if not ever vocalized that way. Parenthood is not for everyone and I wish everyone would stop acting like it is, but for me, it turned out to be the right goal for the completely wrong reasons. I remember someone referring to my father dying as me “losing” him, like he was a remote stuck in the couch cushions somewhere. Loss implies something that you can find and that is exactly what it feels like when someone close to you dies. You go looking for them and typically in not the best places. I wound up with this feeling of something always missing, which led to a sort of half-formed desire, even when I was young, to be a father. That was the goal. Be a father.

I realized moments after my wife told me she was pregnant that my goal was flawed. I was halfway there but knew I could never arrive. I wasn’t doing anybody any good if I became a lost remote too, so the line then became defined by the proverbial ticking clock. I had to be an ALIVE father. Then, through an avalanche of evidence, I admitted that any asshole can be, and many an asshole is, a living father. So I graduated my goal to wanting to be a “good” and alive father.

And there’s the rub. I’ll never feel like I’m a good enough father. Even on my best days when I’ve given every scrap of my soul to my children, the good father line off in the distance will never be crossed. Being a good father is not a point to arrive at. It is being present every day and setting up my life in a way that I’m ready for all the challenges of fatherhood. Being a “good” parent, whatever that means, is hard and it’s hard every day. Some days, most days even, I fail. The same with being “healthy.” At no point am I going to wake up and say, “whew, got my healthy badge, I can start skipping runs.” There is no arrival point with these things. Feeling like you’ve made it is the surest sign of failure.

That’s why believing that something like comfort is an achievable or worthwhile goal is so dangerous. The fallacy of comporting ourselves as if comfort is the goal leads us down all sorts of dark paths. It’s why most adults stop learning anything once they’re out of formal education. Learning is uncomfortable. It’s why the vast majority of people don’t exercise regularly. Exercise hurts. It’s why it’s so hard for us to learn from our mistakes. Taking a long hard look at the times we fell short is downright painful.

Pain, even minor pain, needs to get managed quickly. When we’re too cold, we warm up. When we’re too hot, we cool down. When we’re tired, we caffeinate. When we’re bored, we check Facebook. Comfort is merely a push of a button away at all times and when all else fails, there’s alcohol.

There’s a whole other slew of sins when we define goals this way for our kids. When a child cries, he or she needs to be happy again as quickly as possible. If someone is mean to our child, we remove the child from that situation before they get too upset. If they’re struggling with their homework, we step in and tell them the answer. We give them trophies when they’ve somehow managed to score negative goals. Learning is difficult and uncomfortable and that includes struggling through a math problem as well as knowing how to deal with jerks who steal your toys. These things are hard because they’re worth it.

I’m starting to believe we should all spend more time being ok with being uncomfortable, and would even go so far as to say we should spend more time actually seeking out uncomfortable situations. Hence, the cold showers. George Costanza says they’re for psychopaths and he may be right, but they’re a good daily reminder of comfort not being the goal.

Lately, I keep hearing variations of the same complaint from friends around my age. These complaints all amount to a frustration about being at the place in our lives where everyone told us we should be headed and not feeling like we’ve arrived. It’s like coming home and not recognizing the place. I think that’s really just because arrival should never be the goal and we’ve all been told that it is. Home exists on your way to the horizon, traveler. The journey is arduous but worth it. Keep moving.

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