Is there a word for when one becomes comfortable in discomfort?

Yesterday I ate lunch with my favorite professor of economics. He is a beautiful Japanese man somewhere nearing his sixties I guess. Tall with strikingly chiseled features and a sincere smile that is framed, rather than depleted, by many deep laugh lines. He and the former chair of our department and I ate in the university dining hall and discussed the recent suicide on the shinkansen.

I only heard about the suicide because the professor told me. A man doused himself with gasoline and set it alight on a moving train, taking another woman down with him through the fumes and the chaos. Apparently he had attempted to warn people to run away from him, but such an event is so shocking that I’m sure many people failed to comprehend. The Japanese are now in discussion of whether they should add airport style security to the bullet trains and the professors were very eager to make their claims that it would be a silly thing to do.

I sat there at the table listening, practicing listening and hearing what they and my heart had to say, when I offered the insight, “This is not a man who just wanted to die. Fire is among the most painful ways to go and he chose public fire, no less. What was this man’s purpose? Does anyone know”

They said he must be irrational. I said, “No, people who commit suicide are often very intentional about it. Depression robs them of their ability to feel their own emotions, and such a painful suicide may have been this man’s last, desperate attempt at feeling. Moreover, people who are depressed are better able to perceive the world and their place in the world and their actual ability to control the outcomes of things than those who are not depressed. This man was not acting irrationally, he had a purpose.”

My favorite professor then started to argue with me. What is rationality if you can say that anything is rational? Some things have to be irrational for rationality to be meaningful. I suggested to him he is merely posing the fundamental question of empirical content that defines the field of decision theory and that there are many good answers. Consistency is the primary rule of separating rational from irrational, where consistency means that choices can conform to a particular axiomatization that we may then judge as plausible or not. He didn’t like that. So then I suggested to him that my claim about depression was based on work by a famous psychology professor at Penn (Seligman) and that it was well established and relevant. He didn’t like that either. He became suddenly quiet and divorced from the topic.

It occurred to me that the suggestion that suicidal people are rational choosers of their own death was not a claim that he was comfortable with. Whether he did not like the idea that people need their emotions to live, or he didn’t like the idea that there are times when suicide is in fact the best option available to some people, he plainly did not like that my takeaway from the incident was to empathize with the perpetrator.

As I walked back to my office, I reflected on our lunch. We had never butted heads before and I was surprised with myself. I respect him and he is older than I am and capable of influencing my career in economics*, but I found that I could not hold back what I truly believed. Moreover, it occurred to me that I make other people uncomfortable by the very fact that I am comfortable discussing these subjects. Sex and bodies do not make me uncomfortable either, but I have been in many a situation where my frank and open relationship to my body has made others very squirmy. Neither am I uncomfortable acknowledging that there are differences in people based on their race. I was almost expelled from high school because I dared claim that a particular idealogy was Jewish (historically speaking, it was, as was the teacher trying to expel me).

The irony with discomfort is that you would think people would like to be immune to it, but the only way to become resilient to discomfort is to spend time in it. Me? Yeah. I’ve spent a lot of time in discomfort. I’d like to say I’m used to it. Endurance sports are all about discomfort. You learn with practice that you can endure the discomfort. With more practice, you begin to understand it and learn from it. Discomfort is not a uniform sensation and its shapes and movements can guide you to becoming a stronger being. Eventually you become so accustomed to the discomfort that you actually become comfortable in it. Maybe familiar is the better word.

I love sports metaphors. The only way to grow as an athlete is to take your body, repeatedly, beyond its edge of comfort. Push until it hurts, or it strains, or you become aware that you are approaching your body’s limitations. Spend time at that edge, feeling where you can be in control and where the boundaries are still firm. As you spend time at the edge of your physical abilities, you will notice your ability to sustain your effort will begin to drop off. When that happens, you simply come back from the edge to a place of comfort again. It is critical to allow your body recovery time. Edges are uncomfortable because they are dangerous and require us to become more than what we are, which takes time. However, once you push and return and recover, your next push will take you further.

Matters of the heart and matters of the body are no different. Many truths of this world are incredibly uncomfortable, but perhaps that is because we have wrapped our hearts in a protective cast of manners and media. Exposing a raw and unsupported heart to the piercing nature of truth can be very painful and frightening. The weak heart threatens to break. Like a muscle, however, our hearts can grow stronger. Instead of avoiding the discomfort, which will leave us perpetually crippled, we should control our exposure to it. Giving ourselves the right amount of discomfort will cause us to grow. Like training our bodies, however, it is critical that we then return to a place of safety and nourishment. Repeated exposure  with no respite will simply tear us down.

As for myself, I tend towards overtraining. I overtrain my body and my heart. When I have my wits about me I can balance the two, using training of my body as a recovery period for training of my heart. Right now I definitely feel as if I have spent too much time at the edge of my heart’s capacity to hope and to love. I would like to provide it with a rest, but I must admit that I don’t know how. It’s been a long time since I have felt that I have a safe place for my heart to rest. Frankly I don’t know what that would even look like in my life today.

Well, that’s a lie. My heart sings for speed! Mountains make my heart alive.

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