Being Comfortable Being Uncomfortable

Perhaps the most important single moment in my spiritual development was the moment that I realized that grown-ups aren’t supposed to be comfortable all, or even most of the time. We all need to be more comfortable being uncomfortable.

This observation came all at once, at a single moment, almost 20 years ago, and it completely upended my life. I will share just a little bit about the moment. I was teaching at a small college in West Virginia. I had been out of graduate school for three years, and I was both the youngest and the only non-tenured member of a department of ten people. And then I became the chair.

There were a lot of circumstances at play that don’t really make sense to rehash here. Suffice it to say that being chair at that point in my career–in a department with nine other people who would, in three years, literally take a vote on whether or not I could keep my job–made me extremely uncomfortable. For a whole bunch of reasons, though, not becoming chair (and, therefore, putting my career in the hands of the person who would become chair if I didn’t) made me extremely uncomfortable.

After a long and sleepless dark night of the soul, I decided to embrace academic administration–a decision that has had profound consequences for my professional life. And I also decided to embrace being uncomfortable most of the time–a decision that has had profound implications for my spiritual life. Because, like most human beings, I don’t like being uncomfortable. That’s why they call it “uncomfortable.” But this desire for comfort in all things–and at any price–has profoundly negative consequences in both professional and personal lives.

There are lots of things that make people uncomfortable, of course, but the one I want to focus on here is the discomfort that comes from conflict with other people. We like to have peaceful relations–or, absent peace, at least the absence of outward conflict that lets us pretend that everything is just fine.

But a certain portion of the population does not feel this way. Some people don’t mind conflict and are, in fact, rather good at it. In every organization that I have ever been a part of, such people end up accumulating power far above their level of competence simply by threatening to make people uncomfortable. I have seen whole institutions held hostage by that one person who just shows up and makes everybody else cringe.

So, here’s the thing: when somebody’s basic superpower is that they know how to make me uncomfortable, my willingness to be uncomfortable acts like toxic-human Kryptonite. It entirely removes the threat. When I decided to pursue a career in academic administration, I also decided that I was going to spend the rest of my life simply living with a permanent, low-level discomfort punctuated by occasional bouts of through-the-roof anxiety.

And, to tell the truth, it just isn’t that hard to deal with it. If all of my discomfort were removed today, I would probably miss it.

But this isn’t a post about being an academic administrator. It is a post about being part of a Church. All sorts of things about this make me uncomfortable, but the two biggest ones, I think, are: 1) which people in my life would I come into conflict with if I weren’t part of the Church?; and 2) which people in my life will I come into conflict if I remain part of the Church? And I include myself as one of the people in both categories.

I am using “come into conflict with” here very generally. It includes fights with partners and spouses, alienation from parents and loved ones, and that squirming feeling I have every time one of my academic friends says something like, “Oh, you went to BYU, are you a Mormon?” (This is, with certain cultural adjustments, how that question makes me feel.)

Increasingly, as the institutional Church stakes out positions on social issues that I cannot accept, I have to add myself to the list of people who I have to justify my decision to stay. And if I were to decide to leave, I would have to add myself to the list of people asking, “How can you turn your back on your heritage like that?”

So, no matter what happens, my spiritual and religious decisions about the Church are going to make me overwhelmingly uncomfortable. They are going to involve guilt, fear anxiety, social conflicts, and even conflicts between different aspects of my self. In many ways, this is an enviable position, since there is no comfortable option to flee towards. If there were, I might take it–and fleeing conflict towards comfort is rarely the right choice.

When we choose something because it minimizes our discomfort, we are handing a huge amount of power over to the people, institutions, and situations that are good at producing discomfort. We are saying, in effect, “just don’t make me feel rotten, and you can have whatever you want.” And usually, the people, institutions, and situations that say this want everything we have.

So this is my advice, and it is advice for leaders, followers, Mormons, ex-Mormons, post-Mormons, people who still want to say “Mormons,” people who don’t, and just about everybody else: Get a lot more comfortable being uncomfortable. Since you probably will spend a lot of your life in discomfort caused by the fear of coming into conflict with other people, you might as well learn to like it.

Comments

  1. Wow. I was today-years-old when I realized this. And it was entirely necessary. Thank you for writing it.

  2. “….people who still want to say ‘Mormons’…”

    Yes, this is me.

    Dear Russell M Nelson: I am still a Mormon.

  3. Wow this is awesome and really speaks to be today.

  4. Rachel Y says:

    I have come to recognize the feeling of being uncomfortable as a sign that I am learning, or about to learn something. Feeling uncomfortable accompanies the learning process because we are changing. We are changing our perspective, woldview, beliefs, preconceived judgements, and conclusions. We are being humbled, corrected, and urged to stretch and grow by our own mind. I welcome feeling uncomfortable as an exciting clue that I am on the verge of making a discovery about myself.
    Unfortunately, I have not always allowed myself to be “comfortable with being uncomfortable”. There was a time when I thought feeling uncomfortable was too risky, unnecessary, and bad. I preferred to feel comfortable, surrounded by the familiar and knowing I was right. When comfortable, I did not grow nor did I seek opportunity to grow.
    Dr. Brene Brown observed, “If education is going to be transformative, it’s going to be uncomfortable and unpredictable. If your comfortable, I’m not teaching and you’re not learning. Being uncomfortable is a normal part of the process of learning.”
    Thank you for a wonderful and thoughtful post.

  5. Eric Facer says:

    Nice post, Michael. Your experience in academia reminds me of the response Woodrow Wilson gave when asked why he gave up the presidency of Princeton University to pursue the governorship of New Jersey: “I couldn’t stand the politics.”

  6. I’m more resigned to being uncomfortable. Having fibromyalgia means that by body hurts all the time. Being transgender and untransitioned means being uncomfortable with how I and others see me. Being introverted means being constantly uncomfortable with others coming into my space. Can these things be improved? Sometimes, but not always and not always when I need them to be.

    This seems to be a cross between “choose not to be offended” and “please sir may I have another”. The commandment is “fear not”, not “might as well learn to like it”. The only discomfort we should have is with our own sin.

    I stay because I am anchored on the Rock of Christ. I know the Church is true, but not always right. It’s full of people who are striving to be better and help others to be better, but who are still mortal, imperfect, fallible, sometimes completely wrong, people. My siblings. I don’t have to justify my faith to anyone.

    I may be resigned to some discomfort in the Church, but that does not mean I will stop trying to help it improve. I will never learn to like the discomfort.

  7. Poignant today. Thanks. I have a SP who has told me that he is going to excommunicate me when he gets around to holding a Council about it. It’s been 2 years and still no council… (i’m in a permanent state of “not in good standing” with no available path to move forward towards repentance.) So, like any person given the choice to ‘resign or be fired,’ I’ve decided to resign my membership. I’ll leave on my own terms rather than be kicked out, eventually. I’ve been asking the questions though about the conflicts this will cause within myself, with my very faithful spouse, children, in-laws, etc. There is no doubt that I’m going to be uncomfortable either way; I’m already uncomfortable and I don’t imagine it gets better after the fact.

    So I guess I really just need to get comfortable at being uncomfortable.

  8. jax, that sucks. Maybe the two years without a council means he’s had a change of heart? Is there any hope for reconciliation short of resigning?

  9. jaxjensen says:

    JKC… none I’m afraid. He isn’t even my current SP (I’ve moved), but won’t release my records or control over my membership to my new leaders. When my current SP and/or Bishop contacted him about holding a council he told them he is waiting.. and nothing happens. So rather than this being a redemptive process meant to help me move forward/upward/toward repentance, its been about holding me in limbo, with no movement at all, with no end in sight. SInce he flatly told me, “I will excommunicate you” last time I say him, I’ll just let myself out … unless someone can tell me why the uncomfortableness of being a hostage is better than the uncomfortableness of having left willingly. Anyone?

  10. Heidi Naylor says:

    This rings true to me! And it’s difficult for Latter-day Saints in the fold, in the borderlands, and outside the fold…all of whom, I believe, especially seek community, since we know deeply and instinctively what it is to feel its lack. Thank you for putting words to the discomfort I recognize, but still have trouble fielding.

  11. Thank you for this post. Your insight that we are handing power to those who are good at discomfort really hit home. I hate discomfort. I believe that Donald Trump thrives on it and has cowed half of Congress in both parties into silence by using ridicule. Just so he does not cow people into not voting, we will survive.
    May I offer a small warning to others about being overly concerned about some of the Church’s position on social issues. Some might change in time. However, I have lived long enough to realize that many will prove spot on, that unseen agendas of people are often hidden behind calls of equity and fairness. I have a book written in the 70’s about the Equal Rights Amendment. The author interviewed people on both sides of the issue. People who favored it swore the language had nothing to do with homosexual rights. It was only to protect the rights of women. But the words gender and sex written into laws have been interpreted by the courts many times since the 70’s to mean exactly what the bill’s supporters said they did not mean. And the special protections that recognized the differences between the life roles of men and women have been eliminated, usually to the detriment of the women and children as the courts ruled for equity.
    While I hope we can find a way to include our homosexual brothers and sisters in activity and community, I have worked with gay people who publicly stated after gay marriage became legal that now they were going to force the Mormon Church to perform their marriages. I do not doubt that they intend just that.
    And I have read the demands of some users of familysearch that the software must be changed to allow them to enter their gay marriage and it must be done now because gay marriage is legal. In other words, a free public service is offered, funded by the LDS Church, which does not support gay marriage. They do not pay for this, but they have the right to demand the software be modified just because they do not like it. The legal rights of the LDS Church should be ignored. Only theirs count. And the demands have become more aggressive over time.
    I choose to trust the leaders, not because they are always correct, but because they can often see farther, recognizing where things can go. And because I do believe they are prophets.

  12. Jax, before you go, please have your stake president involve the Seventy above him. On a much more minor issue where my friend’s former bishop took her recommend away, she had to do this. Good luck. We want you as part of us even if you end up out for a few years. Do not give up. Christ died for you and His desire to bring you home.

  13. Frank Pellant
    Also transgender here, also not socially transitioned, also uncomfortable. But I am alive, as I become increasingly aware that I am going to have to transition in order to survive, I will be trading danger of dysphoria for the discomfort of alieanaton from my Mormon tribe. My SP has charitably (not sarcastic- he seems fine with me but worries about the impact on my business) recommended consideration of moving to a bigger city, or even out of my southern red state completely when the time comes, a radical disruption for me, when it seems a better solution would be for my ward and church and other milieus to just resolve to be kind and comfortable around the real me. But hearts are hard as Pharoah’s.

  14. Lona Gynt, I offer my love for you as a fellow child of God. I wish I could truly understand but I cannot cross the barrier in my head between heterosexual to transgender. Perhaps none of us can.
    Are you sure about transitioning? I read years ago about the decisions made by hospitals to discontinue transgender surgeries because the people who were treated were no happier after the surgery than before and often less happy with their lives. I do not know if more current research has given different results. But make sure you know what to expect. I would hate for you to find yourself regretting a choice that cannot be reversed.

  15. Perhaps we are all expecting too much unanimity of belief and feeling. It used to be considered perfectly normal for others around us to believe and speak and act differently from us. Now we want only one way or we want out of the tribe.

  16. Nancy, I think the difference may be, not that us feeling uncomfortable about being different but about others making us uncomfortable. I grew up miles away from Utah. The top leaderships reach didn’t really cross us. We could be more progressive or individual and still participate.

    Today I live just as far a way, but in another place, we have adopted a one stop thinking that permeates everything. It isn’t me wanting it only one way or out of the tribe. It’s the tribe wanting me to think or believe only one way – and if I don’t – I am out of the tribe.

  17. Amy, again thank you for your concern. The most reliable studies on transitioning regret among transgender people places regret as an uncommon phenomenon between 2-5%. A good discussion with references on this can be found at this link:

    https://genderanalysis.net/2015/07/walt-heyer-and-sex-change-regret-gender-analysis-09/

    I feel regret for every day I am not proceeding with transitioning, but am delaying it for now primarily so my adolescent daughter’s largely Mormon peer group won’t either devour or ostracize her. I don’t regret hanging on for her if I can, but just like Heaven, it hurts like Hell.

  18. cat zactly

  19. I loved this. It’s true and uncomfortable to the point of painful for me as I loathe conflict and am definitely one to go to unseemly lengths to avoid it. It’s not even a personality flaw I want to work on right now—I lack the, well, everything.

    I do want to maybe push back a little on something above:

    “fleeing conflict towards comfort is rarely the right choice.”

    I think there is some privilege tied up in that statement. The cost of conflict is simply too high for an awful lot of people.

  20. I just hate conflict. I don’t mind being uncomfortable quite so much, but certainly I could use a lot more comfort with being uncomfortable. A valuable set of thoughts, thank you.

    To jaxjensen, I guess I’d say why allow yourself to be pushed out without a fight? Take it up to the Seventy (or whoever) by all means. I sort of think that by resigning you’d be giving that SP just what he wants. But I haven’t walked in your shoes or anything.

  21. Leona, I agree. Conflict that costs you your home or job often breeds silence on issues you feel very differently about than you let on.
    Perhaps that is why anonymous internet posts have proliferated.

  22. A little late, here. But I have to say that while I may be okay with some level of comfort, not everyone else is, and then take actions they regret. It doesn’t mean the church should embrace making people uncomfortable and who force us to justify to stay. They do that too much, and it backfires. (I cannot be the only one who desperately fears increasing anti-gay language from leaders.)

    There is the saying, “there’s no comfort in your growth zone and no growth in your comfort zone” – but there will be better growth if, on a scale of one to ten, we push ourselves at work/home/church, to a five, rather than to a nine.

  23. “We need to rise above our desire for comfort” – GBH

  24. Glenn Thigpen says:

    I a person adopts viewpoints that are at odds with the tenets of the organization or culture he or she is a part of, there will a certain level of discomfort with those conflicts. (I think this is a “duh” statement.) Another one is that if a person is a member of an organization whose tenets are increasingly at odds with a changing culture, there will be a certain, and probably increasing level of discomfort.

    That is the position in which members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints have just about always found themselves. Some have walked away because of that discomfort. Some have stayed. But that discomfort is not a valid reason to walk away …… if the church is what it claims to be, i.e. the restored Church of Jesus Christ. That is really the most pertinent question. Because, if it is truly the restored church and one walks away from it, he or she is consciously walking away from exaltation. If it is not true, then a person who so believes is wasting a lot of time, effort, and money staying with a lost cause. As Elijah asked the people of Judah “How long halt ye between two opinions?” Determining the “truthfulness” aspect of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is the most important thing one can do when faced with problems o discomfort with doctrines, interpretations, and policies.

    It is a constant meme by many people that the leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints are not perfect, and, if one is to believe the scriptures, indeed they are not, along with the rest of the human race. So what happens if they make a mistake? Does that invalidate the restoration? Does that invalidate a prophet that makes a mistake as a prophet? And who gets to decide if it is really a mistake or whether it is just something that a person or group of people may disagree with?

    I know that as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints that I will face criticism from the world because of some of the policies and teachings of the church. But I am more concerned that I become less energized and less active as I grow older. After all, Christ did not say that members of the church should be complacently engaged in a good cause, but rather that “men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness;” (D&C 58:27)

    Glenn

  25. Thanks, Michael, for making me uncomfortable . . . but no more uncomfortable than I already was. Your posts are always thought-provoking and welcome.

  26. Thanks for this. I am tired of leaving church participation and tired of coming back. I’ve realized I’m going to be uncomfortable regardless, and also that comfort shouldn’t determine what I do anyway. I’m participating fully right now, but I’m beyond restless during meetings–I noticed yesterday that I actually close my eyes most of the time–and not because I’m tired. I make carefully crafted comments here and there so I feel like I’m invested in what is happening but not unnecessarily controversial. I also focus mostly on trying to make several genuine connections with people at church that are completely apart from what is going on officially–that way, the time always feels well spent–especially since all my family and extended family want to be there. (I live in a clannish sort of arrangement with my in-laws). I think having a strategy for coping with discomfort is important for enduring it long-term. I haven’t found one that quite satisfies yet…I’m still usually in a sour mood after church.