The Third Third

Sand Traps in my Comfort Zone!

My kids say I am a sucker for anything labeled “New” in the grocery store. And my husband knows that I count season’s tickets to the theater or the symphony more as obligations than as “dates.” So I am not exactly chained to my comfort zone. But I hadn’t truly been outside of it for a while. I am happy to report it’s refreshing out there! Refreshing the way a quick dip in a cool pool is refreshing – hard to do at first, but oh, how good it feels once you’ve done it! As I think about the third third of life – that’s my job, thinking and then writing about it – I worry about getting set in my ways, failing to try new things, refusing to leave my comfort zone, atrophying, narrowing my perspective, reducing the possibilities. Notice, I am not talking about age, or old age, or physical deficiencies doing this to me; I am talking about doing it to myself! That’s what I’m afraid of. Just think of the enormous changes that occurred during the first thirds of our lives: the physical and mental growth, the places we’ve been -- moved to, lived, and visited; the new lives that we’ve made part of our own; the people we’ve loved; the ideas we’ve tested, embraced, rejected; the fashions. We learned to read, ride a bike, drive a car, make love, make babies, bake a soufflé, operate a computer, run a household, chair a committee, head an office, pursue a career, and operate a new computer. Among other things. Predictably, as a first-born, I find “comfort” where I do well and tend to avoid and/or abandon most of the things I can’t do well. I did not, for example, take enough economics in college, or any philosophy. I don’t run. I’m not good with sick people; I don’t know what to say. I have 100 cook books but only 20 recipes I use regularly. I don’t have the patience to teach. I quit playing the piano when I could no longer hope to play as well as anyone else. So I understand “comfort” as a very limiting condition. In addition, once you reach a certain age and you know what works for you, it’s easy to feel you deserve the benefits of your decisions, that having figured it all out, you deserve to live in your comfort zone. And yet -- if our comfort zone is our joy zone, our love zone, our fulfillment zone, our spiritual connection zone, you name it, as some suggest, why wouldn’t we always be pushing the edges to expand it to get more of what we want – more joy and love, more fulfillment, more spiritual connection? Why indeed? For one thing, it’s *hard* to get outside your comfort zone. There’s inertia to confront, and complacency, and fear. There’s the plain old opportunity cost – if you risk going out to dinner with new friends, you’ll miss the predictably good time you have watching a favorite television show. On the other hand, if you don’t risk it, you may never know what good friends they could have turned out to be, or you may never remember what makes you laugh so hard you cry, or you may never realize you are, in fact, in a rut. So what’s it like outside the comfort zone? I’d have to say it’s sort of messy, imperfect, intriguing, seductive, liberating, and fun. It’s not a zero-sum circumstance – it’s not as if you have to reject something in your comfort zone to add something new to it, though I found myself constantly weighing all the good things in my life against the new adventure and finding the good things were really, really good. I felt more fortunate, more blessed by the comparison. At the same time, the adventure itself was exhilarating and more fun than I’d had in a long, long time. How do you know what to do? I didn’t. It’s just that when I found myself rejecting new possibilities for very old, habitual reasons, and when I met someone who wouldn’t accept those reasons, I finally took a leap into that chilly water of change. In my case, I volunteered to work on a political campaign and traveled on my own to a new place where I lived under less than ideal conditions, to knock on strangers’ doors asking for votes for my candidate – all things I’d never done before. At times I felt I was out of my mind. Other times I felt absolutely renewed, almost like a kid again, just because I was doing something so new and different. It was liberating. I was, briefly, a free spirit. I wanted more – more growth, more excitement, more adventure, more getting outside my comfort zone. I signed up for golf lessons the next week, golf being one of those things I’ve never been good enough at to enjoy. Suddenly, golf was just a game and I was learning how to play; it was no longer a test of my performance; and it was fun. My comfort zone now has sand traps! Wheeee! One of my friends travels to Africa to work with women and children to get outside her comfort zone. My sister, a physician, took up tennis at 50 – and now builds new homes on speculation. Some women get divorced. But small steps work, too – a new recipe, an hour at the piano, riding a bike again, introducing yourself to someone you don’t know. Edward Mills offers a list of 50 possibilities. Among them: Say hello to people in the grocery store. Learn to surf. Get you news from different sources. Call someone in your community whom you admire and ask him or her out to lunch. Go to a restaurant or a movie by yourself. Enter an art show. Learn a foreign language. Admit you were wrong. Say “I love you” first. Check out the rest at
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