Tony Leighton is a Canadian writer happily retired and attempting to help others feel the same.

Tension In Measured Doses

This is about getting out of our comfort zones.

Comfort is our friend. Comfort is not our friend. Knowing when to avail ourselves of its charms and when to reject them is the balancing act.

As we age, comfort feels like an entitlement. There were so many years of striving that were not all that comfortable (at least for me). We labored. We forced ourselves to learn new things. We showed up when we didn’t feel like it. We raised kids. We struggled a fair bit. Maybe a lot. Intensity was the default.

And now we are here. The struggles and the intensity have, if we are lucky, abated. The comforts are, if we are lucky, ours to enjoy. As much as we like.

Not so fast.

While stress and intensity are undesirable in excess, so too is comfort. Too great a lack of tension is called slack. Physical slack leads to weakness and often illness. Intellectual slack leads to dullness and sometimes despondency. Emotional slack leads to — I’m thinking aloud here — lack of practice, and thus lack of resiliency.

A steady diet of comfort means there is no opposing force, no discomfort, to make the comfort all the more enjoyable. Feel no cold, and warmth loses its joy. Feel no pain, and being pain-free becomes a deluded expectation.

When someone says that having some stress in life is necessary, I tend to balk, because I associate stress with anxiety, a variation of stress that comes with panicky jangled dissonance, a kind of misery — although this quote came to me recently and allowed me to look at small doses of a certain kind of anxiety in a more constructive way:

“Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.”
— Søren Kierkegaard

(Those who suffer debilitating anxiety would probably sneer at such a positive spin on such a negative force.)

To constructively oppose comfort with its opposite, I like the idea of tension, like the tension on a weight you lift with purpose, or one of those elastic resistance-training bands. The motion is focused and rhythmic. It’s done to get strong. It’s not just something unpleasant to which we react. It’s something we initiate for our own good; controlled tension.

So if we agree that a measure of tension is good in life, and that spending too much time in comfort creates a surfeit of slack, and that slack creates flab — literal and figurative flab — I’d like to advocate that, in addition to resisting the habitual retreat to comfort several times a day and many times a week, we consider at least one annual adventure outside our zone of comfort. A bigger push among the smaller ones.

Why? Self-discovery. One life to live. Stories to tell and pictures to remind us of our adventurousness. Confidence building at an age when confidence can droop. So much more. Reaching. Extending. Stretching. Trying. And so often coming out the other end richer for the experiences we didn’t initially want to have, because they seemed too uncomfortable.

I’ll give you six personal examples, five of them recent. India. Africa. Body Pump. Long hikes. Public speaking. Upsizing.

My adventurous wife gently pushed me into all but the public speaking (in front of about 150 people for one hour, a tonic of an experience for me). India and Africa were not on my travel wish list. They turned out to be two of the best trips I’ve ever taken. Body Pump (interval training with weights in a class three times a week) has been a revelation of strength and well-being for almost a decade. I resisted for months before begrudgingly attending my first class, and never looked back. Likewise long hikes. I’m no longer uncomfortable with 20 kilometers. In fact, those walks are highlights of the snowless months. Upsizing one's household at this stage of life (most definitely swimming against the current of prevailing thought) is an invitation to stress — and already it's paying off in a new richness of living. I hope it will for years.

Comfort, in all cases, was denied its hold. Discomfort took its place but didn’t last long before paying ongoing benefits. The bargain was a good one.

My soon-to-be daughter-in-law did it recently with commendable élan, because I’m pretty sure that substantial fear preceded her audacious quitting of a corporate job that paid an impressive salary, flying to Southeast Asia on her own for six weeks, and practising what she intends to do now as a freelancer: photograph weddings. Her pictures — and I know good pictures — are better than good. They are journalistic and artful. She will succeed. And to get to that next stage of life, to stir things up, she had to make a big, courageous leap of faith into the fear, so she could get beyond it.

How about you? How can you stir it up to reach that next stage of growth? What tension has to be applied for you to experience a discovery that will invariably lead to more discoveries (about yourself)?

One way into this: Write down five adventurous experiences that you are unlikely to undertake without a push. Then perhaps look at the list every day for a while, finally picking the most insistent one, and committing to it in a way that will make it tough to turn back. It’s a kind of pact. You begin by believing that getting out of your comfort zone is good for you. Then one day, having booked a trip, or signed up for a class, or committed to a long hike in the woods with others, you just push off.

Pushing is the operative. Tension is the process. Living larger is the outcome.

Then relax. I like that too. More than ever.


How (And Why) I Write

"Do not go gently if you don’t want to."