broadsideblog

Stepping — or being dragged — beyond your comfort zone

In art, behavior, blogging, books, culture, film, journalism on April 9, 2014 at 12:07 am

By Caitlin Kelly

I gave this pin to Jose on our wedding day

I gave this pin to Jose on our wedding day

I enjoyed this recent book review, which the blogger Victoria Best, a former lecturer at Cambridge, admits she found both challenging and beyond her normal taste. Her blog, Tales From the Reading Room is always smart and thoughtful:

(author Susan) Nussbaum was a drama student in her twenties when she was knocked down by a car. Now nearing sixty, she has spent her adult life in a wheelchair with partial function in her arms, working as a playwright and a disability activist. Good Kings, Bad Kings is her first novel and it achieves the wholly admirable feat of giving a memorable voice to some forgotten members of society.

Good Kings, Bad Kings takes place in a nursing home for adolescents with disabilities, a grim institution…

So much fiction is for comfort or escapism, so much is created with pleasing and appeasing the reader in mind, that you have to love a book that has the courage to tackle a really difficult subject…

Books should raise our awareness of the vulnerable and forgotten, we ought to be jolted out of our comfort zones sometimes. It’s one of the things we rely on writers to do, when most of us lack the courage.

Having recently visited a country of head-spinning poverty — average annual income is $1,080 — working for a week in Nicaragua, I’ve been thinking a lot about when, why and how any of us choose to leave or stretch our comfort zones.

The poverty there was stunning; in Bilwi, where we stayed, only 20 percent of people have access to running water. Most houses are made of wood and corrugated metal. Many people do not go beyond a primary school education as it’s not available in their village or they need the income.

It is profoundly — and usefully — unsettling to see how differently others live.

We often choose to create a cozy and familiar world for ourselves and then begin to think everywhere is like that or should be like that.

Just because we know and like it doesn’t mean it’s the best or only way to live, just the one we know and are used to. The one all our friends and family know and are used to.

Our apartment building in Cuernavaca, where I lived at 14

Our apartment building in Cuernavaca, where I lived at 14

I moved to Cuernavaca, Mexico with my mother when I was 14. I had lived my life in comfort in Toronto and didn’t especially want to go.

There, we lived in a simple apartment building with an empty field next door with cows in it. We had no telephone, only a pay phone on the street corner below. We got hot water by lighting a burner in the heater in the kitchen. We had no bathtub, only a shower. The floors were tile, cool and smooth beneath our feet — but not carpet or hardwood, which I was used to.

I walked up a short, steep hill to attend school and sat at a desk with two tall narrow windows facing south. One contained Popocatapetl, an extinct volcano and the other Iztaccihuatl, another. One of my school pals had a brother named Willie, who was suffering from intestinal worms. That, too, was new to me.

I only stayed there for four months before returning to Toronto.

But that experience changed me, for good, in many ways. Living, even briefly, within a wholly different culture — whether literally, or through art or music or design or a great book — will do that to you, if you let it.

My photo, from 1986, of the late Philippe Viannay, who founded Journalistes en Europe

My photo, from 1986, of the late Philippe Viannay, who founded Journalistes en Europe

Just before my 25th birthday, I received word that I’d been chosen, with 28 other journalists from 19 nations, to spend eight months in Paris and traveling through Europe reporting. I would leave behind all my dear friends, a thriving writing career, my dog, my apartment, my live-in boyfriend who wanted to get married. My identities.

I shrieked with excitement when I opened that acceptance letter, but the day my plane left I was weeping in a corner, unable to do anything but toss a few things into my suitcase. I knew, (as it did), that year would indelibly change and mark me.

I dedicated my first book to M. Viannay, shown in the photo above that I took of him on the balcony on Rue du Louvre, in gratitude for this extraordinary experience he created — one that shoved me abruptly out of my comfort zone and into an entirely new set of competences and friendships.

What a gift!

I wish I’d been there when Nijinksy first danced to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, on May 29, 1913, when Paris’ bourgeoisie were well and truly epatee. From The Telegraph:

the Rite is the most over-documented premiere in history, and yet so many things are obscure. Was it the choreography that annoyed people, or the music? Were the police really called? Was it true that missiles were thrown, and challenges to a duel offered? Were the creators booed at the end, or cheered?

There were certainly plenty of good reasons for outrage, starting with the high, almost strangled bassoon melody that begins the work, soon draped with fluttering, twittering woodwind sounds.

It’s often said that the pulsating rhythms of the Rite of Spring are what caused the outrage, but pulsating rhythms at least have an appeal at a visceral level (an appeal certainly felt at the Rite’s premiere, where according to one eye witness one excited onlooker beat out the rhythms on the bald pate of the man in front). It’s more likely that the audience was appalled and disbelieving at the level of dissonance, which seemed to many like sheer perversity. “The music always goes to the note next to the one you expect,” wrote one exasperated critic.

The trick is being open, being emotionally porous enough to allow something new — and possibly frightening — to enter.

Here’s a blog post from Rewireme.com, a website I’ll be writing an essay for soon about my experiences in Nicaragua, about making a major life change.

Nancy wrote Jump as “one massive attempt to help you disengage from your inner stalemate and make the best decision you can.” She helps you do this by breaking the process of change into ten steps:

  1. Admit to yourself what you already know.
  2. Tell the truth to someone safe.
  3. Imagine yourself free.
  4. Make one different choice.
  5. Set your new boundaries.
  6. Ask for help.
  7. Honor your resistance.
  8. Jump!
  9. The graceful exit.
  10. Say yes…and then say it again…and again.

- See more at: http://www.rewireme.com/journeys/learning-jump-nancy-levin/#sthash.Wd1QKsAf.dpuf

Nancy wrote Jump as “one massive attempt to help you disengage from your inner stalemate and make the best decision you can.” She helps you do this by breaking the process of change into ten steps:

  1. Admit to yourself what you already know.
  2. Tell the truth to someone safe.
  3. Imagine yourself free.
  4. Make one different choice.
  5. Set your new boundaries.
  6. Ask for help.
  7. Honor your resistance.
  8. Jump!
  9. The graceful exit.
  10. Say yes…and then say it again…and again.

- See more at: http://www.rewireme.com/journeys/learning-jump-nancy-levin/#sthash.Wd1QKsAf.dpuf

I recently watched Australian film director Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 version of The Great Gatsby. Much to my surprise — as I love the 1970s version with Mia Farrow as Daisy Buchanan, (much better cast than Carey Mulligan) — I really enjoyed it, even though it’s crazily over the top, as he usually is; my friends’ reactions on Facebook were interesting.

Some were appalled by the film and shocked that I liked it. Because, harrumphed some, it wasn’t true to the book. He had thoroughly messed with their expectations.

When did you last leave your comfort zone?

What happened — and what happened after that?

 

  1. Ha, I just blogged about the idea of taking a sabbatical to live somewhere new! I, too, feel that it is so important to live outside of your comfort zone once in a while, and this is part of what I love so much about travelling.

    I think a lot of times we leave our comfort zone to put ourselves in a place or have an experience that we instinctively know is going to be beneficial to us, despite it being scary. The most recent significant experience of leaving my comfort zone was probably when we moved to Toronto to open our business. We left family and friends behind, as well as a comfortable house and adequate jobs. It didn’t all work out as planned (we closed our store here), but overall things are going great for us and we are definitely building a life here that makes us happier than what we left behind. Had we stayed back where things were easy, comfortable, and predictable, we’d probably be fine, but a lot less satisfied with and energized by life.

    • I look forward to reading it!

      I think growth is often painful and frightening (which is why we avoid it.) I’m sorry your store did not work out, but glad you are enjoying Toronto — my hometown — which I left in 1986. Moving to NY meant (which I didn’t fully grasp) re-starting my career and social life at 30. It was hellish. But I am glad I am here.

  2. It has perhaps been too long since I left my comfort zone. (Being retired is not really my comfort zone, yet!) There have been many times I have, though. The one that comes to mind, though, was the first job I had–I took it out of desperate need–in the mental health/addictions treatment field. A middle class educated woman, age 43, walked down a hallway filled with multi-cultural youth who were very poor, gang-affiliated, homeless, addicted, criminal, unloved, disturbed, powerful in their insight and seemingly helpless in their despair. My world cracked open wide. But I left that day believing I was where I belonged. Good piece, as always, Caitlin.

  3. “The trick is being open, being emotionally porous enough to allow something new — and possibly frightening — to enter.”
    Love that, so true. I’ve never been quite as daring as some of your adventures, but have had a variety of experiences. I keep a book of quotations that resonate for me and this is going in the book.

  4. I do not wish to belittle your or anyone else’s experiences. However: “Stepping out of your comfort zone” implies choice. You step out of your zone; when you have had enough you step back in. A bit like youngsters who go on a gap year, “roughing it”, in the safe knowledge that when it gets all a little too much there’ll be a hot shower and a full fridge waiting for them back home. That, to me, is not stepping out of a comfort zone. It’s taking a holiday. Riding a camel instead of a taxi – for fun.

    How about being thrown into orbit by circumstances outside your control? With no ‘zone’, or indeed ‘comfort’, to return to. I wish I could answer your two questions. But I can’t for reasons of privacy. Pity. Since my answers would illustrate my point so very well. And put many – including your four months in Mexico (which would be an adventure to most children not a hardship) – to shame.

    To summarize and emphasize: The keyword is “choice”.

    U

    • A serious illness — yours or a loved one’s — will do that; I’ve seen four neighbors in my building cope with this recently. So will infidelity/adultery and an unplanned divorce. Been there, suffered that. I know plenty about dealing with unasked-for and frightening bullshit, much of which is also too private to detail here. My life ages 12 through 30 was routinely up-ended by others. You survive it.

      Yes, it is sometimes thrust upon us. Repeatedly. You survive. Or you don’t. You develop a habit of resilience or you don’t.

  5. Visiting a leprosy slum in Mumbai was one of the most difficult things I’ve done. It was smelly and close and built near a huge open drain used as a toilet and for chucking any and everything in. But the people there were unbelievable in their resilience. They coped with real horrors of life and in spite of it all could laugh and joke. And often cried and quarreled too. I am much older now and mostly stay home but the memories of their stories, of exclusion and cruelty from society and even ‘normal’ family has never left me. It has made me care for the dispossessed and made me drawn to those who do anything, no matter how small, but real, for those who suffer terrible deprivation.

  6. In the 1970s, my great uncle Fr. Ambrose Zenner helped start a Cathlic seminary in Cuernavaca, Mexico. I visited him there in 1975 during a 10-day tour of Mexico with a high school group. It was during an era when clergy weren’t allowed to wear priest collars in public, so Fr. Ambrose wore the traditional Mexican guayaberas shirt instead. The seminarians gave us a tour and cooked us a lunch of rabbit cacciatore, my first taste of rabbit. Thanks for letting me share that memory.

  7. […] Blog’s Caitlin Kelly writes about the benefits of leaving one’s comfort […]

  8. i think it is extremely important to go out of your comfort zone. this is the way to grow and to learn and to begin to understand that the world is much bigger than yourself. it is always through these experiences that i have the most profound periods of personal growth. oen experience that i will always treasure is taking a greyhound bus across the country, simply to talk to,and write about people on board, and to find out how and why they found themselves on the bus. i’ll be writing about it, but it was amazing.

    • Wow…How cool and fun.

      I traveled from Chicago to Seattle by train in 2002, and then all the way back from Seattle to NY by train. One of the most interesting experiences of my life.

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