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Comfortable with Uncomfortable

There’s a saying about “being comfortable being uncomfortable” that gets to the heart of Settled Afar more than I’ve realized in the past. Meeting people from around the world who are all trying to figure things out the best they know how, the one characteristic that always stands out is a person’s focus on learning. It’s a big word, learning, but in my mind it’s tied to a person’s comfort being uncomfortable. The smartest people I know ask the simplest, “stupidest” questions. They jump into the uncomfortable, concerned more about what they’re missing than what they’re proving.

It’s impossible not to build expectations around our lives and how we expect things will, and should, play out. Some mixture of the media, the example set by our parents, and numerous other factors create a template in our minds for how the world works and the expectations we should have. It’s clear as day in college, where groups of not-yet-adults live together and see that they have very different attitudes toward cleanliness, nutrition, and respect for roommates. Even the non-conformist rebel learns to add a dryer towel and say please and thank you. It’s a waste of time to think about going through life without the examples set by others. We depend on them, both for practical reasons and the confidence to stay the course.

Holding onto the habits and frameworks that bring comfort and peace of mind builds confidence but only goes so far. At some point, parents must head back home. As hard as we might try, there is bound to be a point of uncertainty and surprise. Most often, we’ll try to reshape the situation to fit our frameworks and gain more control. Soon enough, though, we’re bound to veer away and be faced with unique challenges, conditions we couldn’t have prepared for or been taught about. It starts with the classroom, a structured world where novelty is a daily occurrence. Moving ahead, like from finger painting to mathematics, we’re not only given new information but different frameworks and processes. The surprise, the differences from our expectations and comfort, extends far beyond the blackboard. It exposes itself in the new relationships we form and interactions we have. The world is not only bigger than we realized, but bigger than we may ever realize.

And at this point, the question comes back to one thing: how comfortable are we being uncomfortable? I’m not sure any of us really enjoys feeling uncomfortable, that sense of dread coming up through our stomach that says we may not be safe. The enjoyment comes from our history in these situations, knowing that our lives are not at risk and the discomfort is a clue that we’re about to learn. Like the friend who is always willing to ask the stupid question, a consistent pattern of searching for learning opportunities leads to a wealth of knowledge and experience. If we really believe that our relationships are the best aspects of life, from the long standing ones with family and friends to the smaller, simpler ones with baristas and butchers, relationships grow through empathy and understanding. Nothing helps us empathize more than listening, learning, and at some point along the way, a willingness to be uncomfortable.

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