The importance of discomfort

Bugs you don’t like touching, social situations and awkward family dinners, exercise and training for a cause, the foul weather curse of a Bank Holiday… The easiest thing to do is to turn away, head back indoors, run away screaming. We feel momentarily relieved, but what are we doing to ourselves in the longer term? Philosophy Friday is here once again, let us discuss.

We stop learning, we get too sedentary, we get less capable, we end up getting further and further from ever being able to confront these uncomfortable things. We teach our children to push themselves out of their comfort zone, to try things they dislike, eat their vegetables, work harder, do their homework, but do we live the message ourselves? When was the last time we pushed ourselves to solve a problem we feared we couldn’t do, or speak in front of a crowded room on a project we’d worked on, or run in a race in front of people, or come to think of it, do anything someone told us to do that we didn’t want to? As adults we stop trying to push ourselves, we stop learning, we regress intellectually. And we must challenge this, little by little, every so often.

I am constantly bowled over by the number of people many decades older than me shouldering their packs and heading for a distant ridgeline, or lacing up their trainers at the start of a marathon, making you smile, and feel humbled. What is it that makes some of us superhuman, interesting, admirable, able to perform feats with the same stamina and agility of someone half their age? Or someone with this infectious lust for life, this endless list of stories and anecdotes, and even more projects on the horizon, new things they want to try… that’s just it. They are constantly pushing their own limits and boundaries, testing their sense of the familiar and ordinary. They are looking at what they’ve done and thinking how to get that same feeling of euphoria back? We find exhilaration the same emotion as fear, and overcoming fear. The things which make us uncomfortable, things we’ve never done and are maybe hesitant about, or outright against. Yet someone says ‘I’m going to try it’. The sense of euphoria we feel when we overcome an obstacle, or finally understand a problem, when we step back and surprise ourselves, hearts beating, smiles radiating… there is no greater feeling. In great hardship and toil there is also great joy.

Specifically, being outside and dealing with the wilderness in all its incarnations is one of the most fruitful in terms of emotional and physical relief. Sufferers of stress, fatigue, anxiety and various mental health concerns report feeling a weight lifted after a stroll, and it comes as no surprise really, that the rhythmic roll of your steps helps walk your problems over. By the time you reach the front door again, somehow it doesn’t feel as doom and gloom as before, simply because you’ve allowed time for yourself, to breathe, listen, see… hunker down and really battle against the elements, get through the other side… for that hot cup of tea at the end, oh the simple things! There is no greater feeling than feeling like you’ve really earned a cuppa! My mantra is and has always been, if it’s difficult, double your efforts, make it twice as easy for next time. And that goes for other things too, like overcoming our social fears, our phobias, which can hold us back on an otherwise astronomic trajectory in our career and personal life: we are the only thing standing in our way!

So embrace the howling winds, the driving rain, the wet socks and burning chill on your face: when you finally reach shelter after your outing, you’re better adapted than you were in the morning, and you’ll be better adapted next time too. You’ll even go out more and more, which is, after all, why I’m in a job! I expect more and more visitors braving the onshore gales at Rutland Water to come and see the Ospreys now!

One response to “The importance of discomfort”

  1. Cheryl Brewer

    Dear Marie,
    I am so very thankful for this incredibly beautiful piece that you have written, regarding the challenge that we each face, especially as age becomes more of a known. As a 72 year woman, walking is my “saving grace”, and I give this joy to myself, and hopefully, can share my enthusiasm with others who care to join me. No matter what the elements are (and I live in the Northwest of the US – Oregon, where the weather has “a mind of it’s own” – 6 to 7 months of damp, cool weather, with little sunshine – rather like England; I suit myself up and put one booted foot in front of the other. Twenty minutes into any walk, I am refreshed and my attitude changes dramatically, most dramatically for the positive.
    I thank you so very much for sharing your sincere insight to that inner joy that comes from being out of doors, no matter the elements. And that hot “cuppa” is especially fine at trail’s end.
    Warm regards,
    Cheryl Brewer