Here's a ridiculous story to start us off:
One day my grandfather (that's him in a boater hat in the above photo) punched someone in the face over some disagreement. The recipient of the blow, wounded more in pride than body, wobbled down onto the curb and began yelling, “Iodine! Police! Iodine! Police!”
To which my grandfather responded – and this is the part of the story my father thought was hilarious – “Make up your mind: iodine or police. You can't have both!”
If you don't find this anecdote amusing in the least, I'm right there with you. Why on earth couldn't the man have both? What was so funny about the logic of the rebuttal? And why was my grandfather going around slugging people anyway?
But the phrase “Iodine or police, you can't have both” is, for better or worse, an indelible part of my psyche and genetic memory.
Which is why, when I was singing carols at a nursing home yesterday, and got to the chorus of “God Bless Ye, Merry Gentlemen” that announces “tidings of comfort and joy,” I suddenly thought: “Make up your mind: comfort or joy. You can't have both.”
In Sick to Fit, Josh LaJaunie and I rail against comfort. We argue that it's the desire for physical and emotional comfort that keeps us from being our best selves, by preventing us from doing the hard things that we need to do in order to be healthy and happy.
We avoid physical exertion because straining muscles and labored breathing are uncomfortable. We binge on junk food because it's uncomfortable to sit with the urge to eat and not capitulate. We give in to peer pressure because we fear teasing or subtle judgment or outright ostracism.
And as we keep seeking and achieving comfort, we generate anxiety. Because the farther we get from discomfort, the more we fear it. Our “comfort zone” constricts until we get freaked out by the thought of saying no to cheese fries or walking in a cold rain or raising a difficult topic with our spouse or friend.
And the reality of our physical existence also generates anxiety. A human body that doesn't move and exert and sweat is in an unnatural state. The only legitimate explanations from the body's point of view are, “I must be really sick or seriously injured or in mortal danger.” Not exactly a happy-happy thought form.
And so lives lived in the thrall of comfort end up in the grip of misery. We're unhealthy, lacking in physical vitality, unmotivated, drugged, and at some level deeply ashamed.
Not a recipe for joy, eh?
In Sick to Fit, we paraphrase philosopher Brian Massumi in defining joy as different from happiness or comfort:
Joy can be painful and frightening. Because, at its core, joy is what you feel when you are growing. When you are starting to move toward embodying your true potential, your authentic self.
Joy can hurt. Joy can sting. Joy can cause you to weep uncontrollably.
But ultimately, joy is the emotion of liberation. So commit to practicing discomfort again and again, and free your joy!
Sounds like we have to choose, like the dude grandpa slugged: Comfort or Joy. We can't have both.
Or can we?
Comfort and Joy
Did you ever build a fort when you were a kid? If so, I bet you tried to make it strong, impregnable, and safe.
Well, that's not an accident, etymologically speaking.
The word “comfort” literally means, “with strength,” from the Latin root “fortis” (as in fort, forte, fortify, and fortitude).
Something that provides comfort doesn't coddle or weaken us. Instead, it supports and strengthens us.
What we think of as comfort is a toxic imitation, imposed upon us by an unnatural lifestyle in which we don't have to walk, run, bend, lift, twist, or push in order to procure food or construct shelter.
A lifestyle in which we almost never have to brave the elements or experience temperatures other than “room.”
A lifestyle in which hierarchies of labor and fossil fuels rob us of the necessity of flexed muscles.
There's the paradox: the more we pursue comfort to feel safe and strong, the more we infantilize ourselves.
And grown-ass man-babies and woman-babies can feel lots of things, but never joy.
The emotion of liberation is reserved for those who experience liberation. For those who take scary, sometimes painful steps to embody their own authenticity.
Ooh, Ooh, Growing Up
Real babies do it on a daily basis.
The first step. The first word. The first separation.
As adults, we move toward joy when we model the courage and persistence of babies. Not their helplessness.
And when we embrace productive discomfort as the vehicle toward joy, something strange and paradoxical and wonderful happens:
We start to feel true comfort.
Not the infantilizing comfort of the swaddled babe, but the deep and abiding comfort of living – eating and moving and sleeping and thinking – in alignment with Mother Earth.
Comfort comes in the midst of a holiday potluck when we realize that we are free to eat according to our own goals and priorities, rather than the habits and judgments and addictions of those around us.
Comfort comes when we surrender to the rain and the cold and go for our walk anyway, and know that we are on a planet designed to support and strengthen us.
Breathing an atmosphere delicately and precisely calibrated to support our physiology. Navigating within a gravitational field that hugs us close while letting us cavort and experience independence. Eating from the bounty of the soil, containing exactly the nutrients we need to grow, repair, expend energy, and thrive.
Only when we embrace discomfort can we discover the existential comfort afforded us as earthlings on a living earth, humans relying upon the generosity of the humus.
And that kind of comfort accommodates and supports joy.
Comfort and Joy. We can have both.
In fact, they require each other.
Now that is some good tidings!