Comfort Addiction, Bigotry, and the Vulnerability of Baby Birds
I have been politically active for a while now, but I wasn't always. I grew up in a pretty right-leaning environment, I was surrounded by a lot of casually racist and sexist people, and I was educated in a racist and sexist education system. It took a long time for me to realize that my passive consumption of religion, culture, and politics had resulted in a lot of unexamined racism and sexism in my actions and worldview. It was hard to confront these things in myself not only because they were ugly and had contributed a lot of hurt to a lot of people but also because they were so passively habitual. My unexamined ideas about race and sex were all thoroughly knit into the complex structure of things that kept me feeling comfortable and secure, and I liked my comfort and security. Who doesn't?
So, I've been looking not only at my various problematic -isms but also at the things I like and don't like — the things I cling to for comfort, the things I describe myself by — and I've been examining why I like and don't like them to figure out how my comfort-seeking works. What have I found? Most of the things I think I don't like are actually things I am less familiar with or things I am scared of. That's eye-opening, because it means that it's not necessarily the things themselves I don't like but the fear or discomfort they give me.
For example, I don't actually hate stepladders, but I do hate the fear I feel when I stand on stepladders.
This is a vitally important distinction, because our life experiences are heavily dictated by the choices we make based on what we think we like or don't like (or, by extension, believe).
If you go through life leading your experiences with the judgement "Do I like this? Do I dislike that?", your tastes become important, and having them satisfied in a way that pleases you becomes important. The problem with this, aside from the fact that your experiences become more about your feelings about the experience than about the experience itself, is that this leads to an oversimplified way of thinking that distances you from connection. You seek what comforts or delights you like a drug, and you come to feel entitled to that comfort and delight, seeking it out over the adventure new things. It's a simple pleasure to seek and have your comfort met, but it can be an addiction like any other.
Sometimes, if you are privileged enough, you can spend entire days doing little else but seeking your own comfort and delight in the form of food and clothing and music and your chosen company. Interruptions to your comfort — be they loud car horns or someone bumping into you without apology or unplanned demands on your time — feel like injustices. They're not injustices, but to a large extent your comforts define you now — the clothes you wear, the music you listen to, the people you choose to have around you —and you feel entitled to all of it. These comforts are an extension of you, and it feels unjust to have them interrupted, to have yourself interrupted.
These comforts aren't who we are, but we walk through life as though they are and unconsciously believe they are, so we seek our comforts at the expense of deeper relationships with others, at the expense of our own greater success over the long term, and over everything that supports our life on earth. We congratulate ourselves for getting off the couch to run in shoes made by children. We indulge in shrimp farmed by slaves with numbers for names because we deserve it after a hard work week. We inwardly curse at being held up by the guy asking for money.
But back to how we allow comfort to dictate the experiences available to us. I was thinking about this when I considered my aversion to olives. My mouth is unused to the rubbery yet meaty texture. It is confused by their astringent flavour and a juiciness that manages to suck the spit out of it. Isn't this an interesting thing to pursue, though? Olives don't hit my pleasure buttons like a salted caramel sauce or take me back to a warm safety like my grandmother's potatoes with turkey gravy, but maybe everything doesn't have to appeal to me like I am a baby seeking succour. Maybe I can wander around through unfamiliarity and unexpectedness with curiosity instead of fear of surprise.
New things that reach beyond the bounds of comfort feel like a threat to the stability of the self defined by the binary tastes of "I like this" versus "I don't like that", or "I am a person who hates olives". And it's true. New things do threaten the self when your sense of self comes to rely on having its tastes met and confirmed again and again. New things threaten the comforted, anesthetised self, the self who says no to anything not already on the prescribed list of familiar pleasures.
And so I wondered why I was so averse to explore an olive or the slimy texture of certain vegetables in Japanese soups, and I realised how close and small my satisfied tastes can make a world, who I choose to be repelled by, what I choose to care about based on its proximity to meet a desire to which I've convinced myself I'm entitled.
In the same way you might insist that you don't trust people who don't like chocolate, some religious fundamentalists who feel confirmed in their worldview insist they can't trust those who live according to different tastes. They will ask for the legal ability to deny rights to openly LGBTQ people, as though their own fundamentalist morals are universally self-evident and correct, because they mistake the comfort of their tastes for a necessity of their existence. They have extended their constructed identity far afield into the world around them and attempt to incorporate all of their public life right up the whole of secular government into their definition of self and entitlement. Without that confirmation, their existence feels imperilled. Their existence is not actually imperilled, but the fear and certitude they feel is very real.
An olive no more wages an active assault on my pleasure centres than a trans man does on a fundamentalist's belief that God-determined gender binaries are a reality, but comfort addiction tells them, and in many other situations us, otherwise. What is not in line with some fundamentalists' personal faith becomes not only an attack on it but a personal assault on their safety and well-being, and it's as simple a mistake as the one I make when I think I hate stepladders instead of the fear of stepladders. In part, though, the fundamentalists are right. They've invested their safety in the precarious and infantile pleasure nest of taste confirmation. They're like unconfessed maintenance alcoholics threatened by an effective prohibition. They're as vulnerable as baby birds, and it's an acute fear we all try to outrun.
Elan Morgan is a web designer, writer, and feminist activist. They’ve spoken across North America at various conferences, on tv and radio, and at TEDx, and they’ve been seen in the Globe & Mail, Best Health, Woman’s Day, and Flow magazines. A personal blogger since 2003 with an interest in online privacy and culture, Elan’s stepped back from speaking to concentrate on writing poetry and contemplating connection and love in online spaces that are specifically built to foster and sensationalize division. Find Elan on Twitter, and check out their Five Star Blog Roundup and Grace in Small Things group on Facebook.