My daughters and I joined an architecture-themed tour group the other day that involved trudging around downtown Portland, OR, in cold, heavy rain, going in and out of fancy hotels filled with wealthy folks in luxurious surroundingsâ€”eating expensive food, wearing expensive clothing, sitting on expensive chairs, uninterrupted by children or anyone else (until we arrived, haha, dripping wet, cold, and noisy).
There we were, near the end of the tour, inside the luxurious Benson Hotel, where we were told the woodwork was from a now-extinct species of Russian tree. How strange to stand in a hotel lobby surrounded by the ghosts of trees who no longer exist!
Soon we were taken back outside, and there, on the sidewalk just outside the door, in the covered space where one might stand for a moment just before getting into a cab, stood one of those tall outdoor heaters. I couldn’t feel the cold at all. “Wow,” I said (smugly, idiotically ) to a friend walking with us, “rich people don’t have to experience cold even when they’re outside!”
I thought of one of my favorite stories from the film “My Dinner with Andre”: Wally Shawn is talking about using an electric blanket in the cold winters of NYC, how he wouldn’t want to give up that electric blanket because it’s a cold, abrasive world out there and the electric blanket is one of the few comforts he has. Andre Gregory replies that he wouldn’t want to use an electric blanket because being cold is wonderful: you feel uncomfortable, maybe you snuggle up next to the person you’re with, get more blankets, and it triggers other things as well, perhaps most especially the awareness that OTHERS must also be cold. Maybe you even wonder how others are handling it.
It connects you to your place, in other words, and triggers empathy.
Of course the Benson Hotel reminded me of this just because it’s even more extreme than my own level of sensory deprivation. I live inside my own heated, windless building, and the experience of those rich folks I’m judging is just a slightly exaggerated version of my own. What I’m getting at is, if I don’t experience the cold rain, if I manage to seal myself off from my world, what part(s) of me goes to sleep? Am I even alive or what?
All kinds of basic life experiences (experiencing cold, hunger, exhaustion, grief) set in motion all kinds of other little worlds in us (some of which we are aware of, some of which we are undoubtedly unaware of). How many of these little worlds never come to life? sacrificed in favor of “comfort”? How many of us are guided away from a rich life by the notion that life is about being comfortable?
Here’s one example I think about from time to time. Many women in our culture are encouraged to avoid experiencing labor during childbirth. What feelings, outcomes, events, stories are triggered inside a woman (and inside the baby) during labor? Oxytocin is one obvious example: the domino effect of hormonal release, one step in labor making way for another and another. But that’s the tip of the iceberg. What kinds of things are set in motion, or not set in motion, based on what is allowed to be experienced?
Anyway here I sit, away from wind and cold, contemplating how experiencing things like wind and cold help wake us up, hold us together in the community of life. Haha.
I wonder if any of you has a story to share about your own experiences with “comfort” and “discomfort,” or with experiencing something vs. avoiding experiencing it?