Seek Discomfort

It amazes me every time I realize (over and over) how many lessons I learned in my teens, 20’s and 30’s, but I’m only now – in reflection – finally getting the point.  A great example has to do with the toxicity of “comfort”.

Very few things came easy to me as I was growing up and growing older.  Even music, the one thing I truly have a natural affinity for and ability in, even this was rarely comfortable.  All of the skills I’ve learned were earned with countless hours of pain and sweat and frustration and disappointment, with an occasional sprinkle of success and satisfaction and revelation.

Back then, I didn’t consciously seek discomfort – or avoid comfort, for that matter – I simply did whatever was necessary to eek, inch by painful inch, toward my goal.  And if that meant the periodic spilling of my own blood (whether from my fingers during guitar practice, or from wounds received during martial arts practice), then that was the acceptable cost.

Only now, at the age of 58, am I consciously pushing myself to learn what I used to naturally “know”.  Somewhere in my 40’s and 50’s, I forgot the cost of success.  I somehow, in imperceptive increments, let go of my focused search for perfection and began to wrap my arms around “comfort”.  Eventually, my arms were wrapped so tightly around comfort that I couldn’t see what I was doing.  I had been doing it long enough that I couldn’t feel the difference.

Only when I started learning and studying Stoicism could I finally put words to the echoes of feelings that were reminding me of my lost Self.  The Self that didn’t overthink the process of success.  My old Self would simply “Just Begin” toward the dim light of my goals, and would tackle each and every obstacle that slowed me down – or even stopped me for a time – and wouldn’t care at all about the cost of blood and pain and time that were demanded.

Then I saw the words “Voluntary Discomfort” during my Stoic readings.  I loved the concept, but that phrase didn’t quite capture what I KNOW I needed to do to reclaim my old Self.  Eventually, the phrase morphed in my head to “Seek Discomfort”.

That was it!

It expressed an action that needed to be done.  Voluntary Discomfort can often be viewed as allowing discomfort to happen to you.  but “Seek Discomfort” is a forward moving action.  I am actively seeking that which is uncomfortable – just like I used to when I was younger… back when I actually achieved my goals.

In the last year, or so, I’ve gathered a handful of terms that speak to the deepest part of my True Self.  They demand attention.  They demand action.  And “Seek Discomfort” is definitely one of the ones I say to myself daily – repeatedly.

Please believe me, kids.  Life happens To You constantly, and – if you let it – it will sweep you along like a powerful current.  And before you know it, years – sometimes decades – will pass before you realize that you somehow lost control of your course.  The goals that constantly stack themselves like cordwood in the back of your mind will gather dust, even as you continue to build upon it.

Seek Discomfort – now!  Don’t wait for the right day or time or conditions or money or circumstances or… anything else that throws a shadow on your forward path.

Remember the Joy

In my early life – from my youth through my mid-30’s – I clung tightly to those things that meant the most to me.  The list of “Those Things” is pretty short, mostly because the fight required to keep them actively in my life always came at a cost.  When each item on your “List” elicits arguments, lost sleep or even blood, you choose the items on your List very carefully.  At that time, the Items were:

Martial Arts training.  Military life and married life and parental life and church life and just-plain-life normally leaves very few spare minutes each day (if any at all) that I can use for Lee Stuff, and quality Martial training takes serious time.  Back then, I trained 2 to 3 times a week, a minimum of 2 hours per session.  These sessions kept me in shape, they were extremely meditative, and they nurtured my soul.  They also allowed me a means of pushing my personal abilities to new limits, a vital component of any life of quality.

Music.  I’ve held a deep, powerful love for music from my earliest memory, and I have been a musician ever since the age of 8.  Playing the guitar is by far my greatest expression of that love because it provides a direct conduit from my heart to the air – through my fingers.  If I am playing music that I deeply connect with – or, more intensely, music I have written – that expression is multiplied 10x.

Reading.  As a poor child, I used to steal books from the library at school so that I could read and re-read and re-re-read stories that lifted my spirits, caused me to dream, and simply made me happy.  When I finally had the means to purchase books, it didn’t take long for my library to become massive.  At it’s largest, my physical library filled four 6-foot bookcases, stacked two books deep, wedged in sideways, and overflowed onto the floor.  I would regularly be reading 7 to 10 books simultaneously, stashing them in every common pocket and place, and would quickly replace every finished book with a fresh one.  SciFi, historical, instructional, philosophical… there were few genres I wouldn’t gobble up.

There are many things I love to do, but those three things were activities I HAD TO DO!  They were vital to my well-being, and it didn’t matter to me who got pissed-off at me for carving out time to do them.  Period!

But the unrelenting pounding of hurt feelings, of work demands, and the weight of mounting guilt eventually chipped away at my resolve…  and my Must Do 3 Things eventually, silently, went away.

In my teens, 20’s and 30’s, these three things were synonymous with my name; and the people who were attracted to me – wanted to be around me, speak with me, engage with me – did so primarily because of one or more of those three things.  Over time (unbeknownst to me) they served as major factors in defining who I was as a person.  So, unsurprisingly in hindsight, when The 3 went away, so did much of my self-worth, my identity, and my joy.

Oh, I still smiled.  I still laughed.  And there were other things that brought me joy (my children being the most prominent).  But as an individual, I no longer had any of those three things to nurture “Me”.   No stories to absorb.  No notes to carry my inner feelings.  No movement to expel my pain.

It’s been nearly 20 years since I lost my Top 3 and if I take the time to examine those 20 years, I can easily see how I’ve pretended to still possess them.  I have bought dozens of books that I have never read.  I move my guitar from place to place, always keeping it visible, but never using it like I used to.  And I write endless martial training plans and constantly tell myself that “I’m getting ready”… but never actually train – not like I used to.

How did I let 20 years go by without missing the joy of my music and art and literature?  Did I cover the joy with lies and rationalizations and false promises of tomorrow?

I don’t know.  It’s amazing how easily, seamlessly we can justify such things to ourselves and blanket them with the rationale of selflessness.  But at what cost?

It wasn’t until 2016 that I could finally see the vacancy in my eyes… and recognize it in pictures taken over the last 20 years.  And it wasn’t until this year that I could finally understand the cause of that vacancy.  Only now can I remember – faintly, but firmly – the joy I used to feel.  Only now has the desire for my Top 3 returned.

History teaches us to learn from the mistakes of others.  But this lesson is useless without the action of actually looking and listening to those mistakes.

My children, please NEVER allow life or love or work or any other demand of existence cause you to let go of any activity that defines you, nourishes you, and allows your soul to soar.   Decades slip by all too quickly, and the lack of your Top 3 will drain you in ways you cannot imagine.

I don’t know how much more life God will grant me, but I feel blessed that He has allowed my eyes to see again.  He has gifted me with the ability to ache again for the things that He bestowed me with in my youth.  And most important of all, He has allowed me to…

Remember the Joy.