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Making Change: Comfort

The upside of choosing challenge

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Let's talk about how too much comfort makes you boring, weak and small-minded. Welcome to part two of Making Change, a six-week series on the hows and whys of personal, social and political change.

Describe surfing in Humboldt County to someone unfamiliar with the sport and they look at you like you're bonkers. "First you step into the neck of a rubbery suit, then you shimmy it up over your body and limbs, then you paddle out where waves will crash on your head and flush 50-degree water into said suit. You paddle around with a bunch of other people trying to be in the right place at the right time because, if you're in the wrong place, you'll get destroyed or be in the way. And you can't stop paddling because the current will sweep you out to sea. Oh, and sometimes a shark shows up."

And yet, when I go too many days without putting myself through that discomfort, my brain starts skittering around like a slingshot spider cracked out on espressos. Every little thing annoys me, my foul mood reducing me to a lesser version of myself. And this, dear readers, is science. When we fail to ask enough of our bodies, our minds pay the price.

Some people live outside their comfort zone because they have no other choice. I'm lucky to have a comfortable home, clothes, food and a luxurious variety of streaming services. Not everyone does. My body and mind function more or less as intended. So lucky. Not everyone is — another reason for those of us who are lucky to actively resist taking comfort for granted.

Book rec: The Comfort Crisis by Michael Easter

In Michael Easter's book, The Comfort Crisis: Embrace Discomfort to Reclaim Your Wild, Happy, Healthy Self, he writes, "We are living progressively sheltered, sterile, temperature-controlled, overfed, underchallenged, safety-netted lives." This, he continues, limits us by confusing comfort for happiness and denying us the pleasure that comes from accomplishment. Easter discusses the Japanese concept of misogi, an emotional, spiritual and psychological challenge that masquerades as a physical trial. It's a way to test and build your own resilience. When constant comfort has shrunk your ability to withstand even the slightest inconveniences ("Ugh! I had to park an entire block away!") your odds of handling the hard shit life likes to flings at us evaporates. Without occasionally accomplishing something tough, you have no foundation on which to build and strengthen confidence in your own capability.

Humboldt County is full of people pursuing misogi-like challenges. Think of the Avenue of the Giants marathon, the Tour of the Unknown Coast bike race or paddling out into 20-foot swell. But shifting from the couch to an Ironman might be too big an immediate stretch. Great news: Other physical and mental opportunities await. As my friend Liz says, "The only way to expand your comfort zone is through discomfort." And as I like to say, "Yes. Let's do it!"

One way to sidestep your comfort-addled brain is to set goals too small to justify not doing. I'm quite possibly the laziest bicyclist in the world, so sometimes what I tell myself is that I only have to ride 15 minutes. Pathetic, but that's the point. Too pathetic to argue against. I get myself out the door and, after the initial grousing, the endorphins kick in, and I find myself riding farther and longer than planned, caught up in the beauty of the bay and dunes, pedaling through the Arcata Bottoms.

Also, don't write something off just because you're not already good at it. Learn to say yes. Despite my extroverted exterior, my soul will forever house the shy, awkward, younger version of myself, halting outside a class already in session, unable to bear the idea of walking in late with all those eyes on me. Becoming a reporter provided two tools that helped shape me into someone who can share thoughts from a stage and make small talk with strangers. First, I had a role to play. I wasn't Jennifer, random dork. I was Jennifer, reporter. Armed with my notepad and pen, I could talk to anyone. Second, I realized I could leverage that role to do all kinds of cool stuff I'd never done before, from whitewater river rafting to riding in the Coast Guard helicopter.

A couple years ago, my son gave me a gift card to Far North Climbing. "I think you'll like it," he said, despite my fear of heights and janky knee. But my determination to be a "cool" mom made me show up, smush my feet into those toe-crushing shoes, dip my hands in chalk and grip my way up the wall until, after several attempts, I found myself with both hands at the top like a goddamn hero. Conquering this little V.0 made me giddy, flooded with triumph and 100 percent focused on the moment at hand. All the demands competing for space in my brain paused. This tiny achievement gave me mental space to breathe and a physical reminder that my body can persevere. These are the kind of moments that ground us. That remind us we can choose to move beyond our comfort zones and therefore expand them.

And we need to. Because all the ways in which modern living has minimized inconvenience have also shaped a world marked by disharmony. To find our way through worsening social conflict, political upheaval and environmental disasters will require uncomfortable conversations, sacrificing ease for justice and convenience for survival — a great deal of discomfort. Here's to it.

Longtime advice-giver and professional change-maker Jennifer Savage (she/her) is the keynote speaker for this year's League of Women Voters of Humboldt County 31st annual State of the Community event.

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