The Comfort Paradox

The first time I heard the saying, “Afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted”, it was in seminary. I heard it from a cohort leader who said it in a way that led me to believe that she made it up. She never said she made it up. But, that was her response, when I was telling her how I wasn’t sure if I was meant to be a minister in my new found denomination because my background was so different from everyone I had met so far.

“Pedro, you’re right where you are supposed to be because as a minister, your job is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” Hearing her say this with such confidence and conviction, I assumed that this was something that she also learned in seminary. Perhaps it was something a famous theologian said. And once I heard those same words uttered by more ministers in this new space, I started thinking it was something that I needed to embrace too, whether it made sense to me or not.

Well it turned out that the saying was not from the Church at all but from an American humorist named Finley Peter Dunn, who put the words in the mouth of one of his characters, Mr. Dooley who was being critical of the media of the times. The actual quote went like this:

Th newspaper does ivrything f’r us. It runs th’ polis foorce an’ th’ banks, commands th’ milishy, controls th’ ligislachure, baptizes th’ young, marries th’ foolish, comforts th’ afflicted, afflicts th’ comfortable, buries th’ dead an’ roasts thim aftherward”.

I’ll never know how ministers grabbed a hold of this statement out of context and made it their own. And from what I’ve seen online, it looks like some politicians and lawyers have grabbed on to it too with very few referencing where the saying came from. Speaking for myself, I took it to heart without question initially because I was trying to make sense of the tension I was feeling trying to live as authentically as possible in the new environment where I didn’t know the cultural norms or taboos.

That awkward growing phase is always the most challenging.

You see, I was having a hard time because I was in that awkward middle space in my growth as a minister. If you’ve ever grown locks you know what I mean–that “halfro” space where you look like you don’t know what your plans are for your hair. When you think about it, it’s a pretty universal analogy. A good visual would be what Lenny Kravitz’s hair looked like when he first cut his locks off. Well that’s where I was in my ministry at the time. I didn’t know what I was doing or where I was going because I had spent most of my life worshiping in one context and now, I was learning to preach in another. And the reality was, I had no experience in this new space. I jumped right in with only a couple of visits to a website as my introduction. But soon I was to find out that the culture was different. The longings were different. The values were different. The sensibilities were different. The demographics were different. And in many ways, even the language was different. And now that I realized this, I was essentially afflicted with the thought that if I were too direct with the comfortable people I was now exposed to I would unintentionally afflict them. In the past, having been told by many members of my former church that I didn’t fit into our faith community anymore, I was leery of making anyone feel too uncomfortable in the place where I thought they came to seek comfort–especially as a person of perceived power and influence. But this cohort leader meant to comfort me by saying that as a minister, it was my job to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted–which in some way brought me comfort. So did that now mean that–according to this logic–someone should afflict me? See the paradox?

There is no comfortable transformation
I think my life might’ve sucked growing up compared to some of the people I know now. But I really don’t know it because it was all I knew. Almost everyone I had been exposed to knew what it was like to deeply struggle. Success, from our point of view, was just surviving. And not everyone agreed on the best way to do that. So I never questioned struggling to survive as a reality of everyone’s life until I was in my 30s when I moved to New England and started getting exposed to people who I now know would qualify as being “comfortable”. And by comfortable, I mean people who had a sense of entitlement or at least expectation with regard to life going their way–people for whom disappointment was not an everyday occurrence.

The way I started encountering most of these people was because I was openly trying to live out my belief that if God is a perfect Creator then there must be some underlying perfection to all of life whether I could see it or not. I had come to the point where either that had to be the case or I had to be done with the inconvenience of religious pursuits altogether. I figured the only way I would ever know if this was true or not was that I had to surrender any sense that I understood anything about how God is and just jump into the Current of Life and trust that where I ended up was where God “thought”–using that word loosely–I should be. I became so committed to this idea that I decided that I would take absolute responsibility for everything in my life that distracted me from this commitment–even things that on the surface I had no say in–such as my race, my height, my parents, the country I was born into, the time I was born into, etc.

Without getting too much into it, I started meeting “the comfortable” when I started declaring that I was “comfortable with being uncomfortable”. Ironically, or maybe its paradoxically, coming at life from that point of view, I started attracting into my life people who were “uncomfortable with being comfortable.” These were people who, because of their comfort, had the time and space to contemplate the discomfort of others. If that doesn’t make sense to you, I’ll share an example of what I mean.

One day a new comfortable friend said to me that they felt horrible because they were white and born into a rich family. They said that because they never had to worry about their survival they couldn’t relate to people who did. In their mind, that made them a horrible person. They felt handicapped by all of their resources and because of their guilt, they avoided people with little to no resources. The best thought that they could come up with to lighten their plight was to wish that they were born poor or maybe even as a minority. At the time, I was not as polished a communicator as I am now, so my response was, “That is one of the stupidest things anyone has ever said to me. What are you talking about? If you feel so bad, why don’t you just donate your money to people without resources and go to where they are and get to know them?” After a number of conversations like that with several comfortable people, I came to see that my suggestion was easier said than done.

It turns out that in many cases the people who are most shielded from the world’s problems are also the ones who have the space to consider what it might take to solve them. Unfortunately, because of the power dynamics of society, not too many of them have the capacity to listen to and with the people most impacted by those problems. Consequently, even when they try to be helpful, very often the result is that the person who has had to learn how to deal with hardships due to life circumstances ends up having to care for the feelings of the well meaning helper. If not that, then there are the times when the well-intentioned comfortable person gets offended by the person seeking help–either because they can’t handle their impassioned expression of their challenges or their need for reassurance that this offer to be of service won’t be as disappointing as previous times. It’s a real complicated set of circumstances that often takes everyone for a loop that leaves most parties feeling afflicted in some way. I can speak to this as someone who has been on both sides.

This awareness is something that I’ve been thinking about lately as I try to evaluate whether I am living as fully into my potential as I could be. For a long time, I felt my greatest asset was that I never expected to be comfortable. Because of that, I was willing to try anything even if I might fail because I was used to picking myself up or making the best out of broken pieces. But when I started getting around “the comfortable”, I started getting confused. There is a certain way you carry yourself when you feel like you have nothing to lose. If you’ve been at the bottom and survived, anything positive in your life feels like a bonus. At least that was my experience. But from my observation, it seems that when you feel like you have too much to lose, potential failure and disappointment feels a lot more like life or death kind of situation.

Being comfortable with being uncomfortable, I tended to freak out my friends who were uncomfortable with their comfort whenever I suggested that they were more capable than they seemed to be to handle some tough decisions or new circumstances. Taking their expressions of wanting to grow as a cue, I would challenge them to just try to do what they say they want to do–have more diverse friends, spend time volunteering and mentoring, go to school for something that interests them rather than what their parents would pay for, etc. But the fear of loss and disappointment was just too paralyzing. What if they try and fail? What if they say something ignorant and hurt someone’s feelings? Or worse yet, what if their feelings get hurt?

Photo by Life Of Pix on

That’s when I would tell them the reality that there is no comfortable transformation. If they want to do new things, they have to become new. They have to let the limiting self suffer and perhaps die in order to build the capacity for creating different possibilities in their lives and those whose lives they touch. But whenever I would say that–which is what life experience had taught me–they would give in to fear, insecurity, and anxiety. Which, I’ll be honest, frustrated me for a long time. My reaction to this early on in relationships with people who suffered from comfort would be something along the lines of, “Well don’t ask me what I think then. Because I am only going to tell you what I have experienced. And since I don’t know when my last breath is going to be, I’d hate to be on my deathbed realizing that I wasted some of them talking to you about doing things we both know you’re never going to do.” Of course, that afflicted them, which actually wasn’t my intent. More than anything, I just wanted to help them live into their professions. But I got frustrated that I couldn’t figure out how to do it.

What I didn’t understand back then was that, for them, comfort was an island, and that what I was asking of them–and to a large degree what some of them were asking of themselves–felt like stepping into the vast ocean, that seemed to be between them and the possibilities they were talking to me about, without even a life preserver. Once I realized that in some ways they were experiencing a debilitating terror that internally mirrored what some of my friends who were from the “island of discomfort” experienced when they thought about going into new spaces, I felt more compassion for them. But in reality, it created some complications for me. Now that I could see where they were coming from, I was more capable of being in the discomfort of their anxieties. But I didn’t want to hold myself back to accommodate the limits of their anxieties.

When I stepped into the Current of Life that I mentioned before, it spit me into that metaphorical ocean and I washed up on the shores of “the island of comfort” having no real idea how I got there. While there I made friends, built relationships, and learned a lot about myself. But I also still carried with me the awareness that when it felt right, I was willing to jump into that ocean and see where it would take me next. I never thought about the idea that some people would want to leave the island with me or expect me to stay with them. And for those who wanted to leave with me, because they had never left the island before, they would need reassurance in order to jump in. This was something I was unversed in. Another consideration that presented difficulty for me was that those who wanted to enter the ocean with me had the expectation that—wherever the ocean took us—we would end up in the same place. To do that requires a system of some sorts—something I know nothing about. Realizing this, I am seeking knowledge in how to create these systems on a larger scale for those who might need more encouragement to do what they profess they want to do.

Cruising Beyond Comfort
I hope I didn’t lose you with all of the analogies because I have one more before I let you go. In my going with the Current of Life, I have come across some people who transcend both comfort and discomfort. On the surface, they look like the comfortable. Actually, they look like they are more than comfortable regardless of what their material possessions might be. Some of them have had more money than most of us can spend in a lifetime and some seem to have only what they need for the moment and nothing more. They, in their own ways, model that Pauline teaching that goes:

I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through the One who gives me strength.

Philippians 4:11-13

These are the people who have mastered the comfort paradox. Most often, you see them as those who have lived a rags to riches story like Tyler Perry. But they are also those who are not afraid to go from riches back to rags so to speak because they realize that there is no loss when you are in the pursuit of a truth. And the truth that is most worth pursuing is the reality of what we are made of–of who we truly are. That is what I am going for in this life. And as such, I have to make peace with the comfort paradox.

Most of have been conditioned by rewards and punishments and experience life as playing that same game with us. Rewards are seen as good and worth pursuing while so-called punishments are seen as bad and to be avoided at all cost. But in truth, that paradigm is based on falsehoods and robs most of us from ever realizing how manipulated we are by this trap. I think more than anything, that manipulation is what Finley Peter Dunn’s character Mr. Dooley was aware of.

What I learned in my travels along the Current of Life is that none of us have any idea of who is actually comfortable and who is afflicted. It’s not until we sit with people being present in whatever state they find themselves in with an open heart that we get any sense of what they are experiencing. And from my experience, as long as we feel confined by fears, we are all afflicted. To transcend this, we have to look beyond our outward circumstances and those of others and look toward an inward intimacy with the One who gives us strength. This is how those who cruise beyond comfort live. When they encounter what many of see as discomfort, they see opportunities to grow. They don’t avoid it. Rather they go toward it knowing that, if they are present with the condition, the underlying perfection in all things will reveal a path toward greater expansion. Furthermore, they make it their business to map out the path or create systems for other to follow so that if they ever choose the option to leave the islands of their despair, they can. Meanwhile these transcendent beings keep moving. Paradoxically, the most apparently successful among them do not do this to earn rewards or avoid punishment. And yet, what we witness in their lives is a life that in itself is absolutely rewarding.

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