The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr
Safe or Comfortable

Safe or Comfortable

A balance in a time of war.

In reading the book, The Splendid and the Vile, by Erik Larson, I was plunged into a world I had never experienced myself. War. While less removed than most of my friends – my parents having lived through enough of the civil war in Lebanon to know it – I still had never experienced war myself. There is a lot about war that is foreign me. There is the pervasive threat to one’s own life; the fragility of life that is present; the reality that resources are limited. and often in shorter supply than required. None of these things have I encountered personally, but I lived in the shadow of it. So, it struck me when, out of 500 pages of determined survival by the people of Britain during the Blitz, Winston Churchill was quoted as say this:

“If we can't be safe, let us at least be comfortable." – Winston Churchill

Some context: The Blitz began during the first year of Winston Churchill’s role as prime minister of the Britain. The island of Britain was subject to nightly air raids by the German air force, with a kind of indiscriminate bombing that is almost unimaginable today. This was a time before radar, laser sights, and the kind of precision bombing we think of as normal today. The Blitz was unending, pressing the British into a life that was filled with unknowns. Air sirens would signal an alarm, but only at the first sight of planes – a challenge even in a moonlit sky. All citizens could do was move to shelter. One such shelter was the Anderson shelter – a small bunker able to house a few people often installed in the garden of a private home. One public pamphlet printed well into the Blitz even advised citizens on how best to use their Anderson shelters, including what to bring with them, what to keep out, and how to pass the time.

There is a lot that we can explore with a quote like this. We can address the dramatically different experience of war that folks in different socio-economic strata had. We can explore the kind of person Winston Churchill might have been to think of saying such a thing. We can further explore the context in which such a statement was made. The thing that struck me the most, and that I will explore here, is the way this quote sits with many of the assumptions about formation and change.

The Assumptions

Comfort zones are the way we describe the regular habits of thought and action that we feel safe in. They are what are interrupted by change, whether self-initiated or otherwise. Comfort zones, at their best, are wonderful things that provide a sense of rest, ease, and lightness to them. At their worst they are the limiting factor in any potential change.

The idea that we must be outside of our comfort zone is common when discussing change. In my own experience, I trained to simply not have a comfort zone. Both in my craft and in life, I didn’t want to develop a thing that I had to then work to get out of, and by extension be uncomfortable. Why not just become comfortable with the discomfort of the creative or formative process? At least that was my theory.

The assumption here is that comfort zones are known and therefore comfortable and any interruption to them will cause discomfort. By extension, anything that is not known is uncomfortable. The discomfort comes from the unknown. Unknowns come with the possibility of danger. Controlling for unknowns limits that possibility. Comfort zones may be better described as Control Zones, where everything that can be known is controlled for. Thus, limiting the possibility of danger and increasing safety. But what if safety was not the inherent goal?

More than Safety

There must be something in our lives that can inspire us to risk. Without any kind of pretense or frivolousness I propose love, or goodness, truth, even beauty as such things. The classical Transcendents as they are often called do something to call forth inspiration within us that feels more than human – hence their name. I would attribute such things to God – I don’t believe they can be attributed otherwise and still hold. However, how these things come about is not the focus here. The focus is that transcendent things exist and can inspire a life that cares more for them than the safety of itself.

What I’m talking about here is essentially flipping Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which I wrote about years ago. The proposition is that the basic needs of humans are not the physical, but rather the spiritual. That in fulfilling the spiritual the physical will work itself out. For example, if we honor the human will, the context of relationship, and a reality that includes the unseen – if we work those out – food and shelter become easier tasks to solve for. In fact, they may even solve themselves.

In the Context of Change

In the context of change the difference between safety and comfort is also important. There are plenty of unknowns in journeys of change. We don’t know where we will end up, who will be with us, or how it will all come to pass. At every juncture there is potential for danger. There is also great potential for good. It is true, that humans tend to focus on the negative as a protective measure against danger, but recognition of the negative is not the only thing that is needed for survival let alone flourishing.

As I describe the ideas behind spiritual formation for followers of Jesus in my course, Spiritual Formation for Artists, one of the questions that always comes up is what we know about God’s character. If, as I propose in the course, only God can change certain parts of our being, then how we think about God is quite important. If we don’t think God is good, for example, there is no reason to entrust our parts to him, even for the sake of good change. We would rather control the journey ourselves, hold back those parts which only God can change, and struggle with the challenges we face on our own. If, however, we think God is good in some fundamental way, than trust and collaborative change comes more easily.

In this case then, the feeling of safety in the process of change comes from trust that the people we are with (namely God) in that process are good. It also comes from a prioritization of the person to the body. The body after all is just one part of the person, along with the mind, heart, and soul. If everything that we do is for the sake of only one of our parts, the other parts will suffer. If we consider that everything we do is for the whole of the person, we will consider the well-being of all our parts as needed.

We may in time consider the safety of one part to be less important than the formation of another. This is true for most aspects of spiritual formation. Here, often, the body is asked to do things for which the outcome is unknown or dangerous, for the sake of the ongoing formation of the person (the whole). Consider practices of fasting, silence, and solitude for example. If, rather, we only do what the body desires, with disregard for its affect on the mind, heart, or soul, the formation of the person as a whole suffers.

What of Comfort

Spiritual formation can at times feel like a war. In fact, the language of spiritual warfare is common in many traditions. It strikes me that for the sake of his countrymen Churchill felt the need for comfort in the midst of danger. It at least sounds as if he understood the toll of the never-ending stress of the blitz on the lives of his people. His desire to supply comfort brings up the deeper desire for rest that can come in times of great stress.

Jesus Christ talks of rest, ease, and lightness for his followers. His propositions might be considered laughable if we think of the lives some of his followers endured in the time after his resurrection. Many were itinerant and persecuted, with little of what we might call comfort. Yet, their considerations were not for their own comfort first. It was for something greater. Still, I don’t think discomfort need be experienced as proof of a particular position – like saying I’m uncomfortable so something must be right. I believe in a God who rested, and who desires his people to experience rest. In fact, I think that safety and comfort are things that we pursue naturally. How we pursue them, where we might look to acquire them, and when we intentionally set that pursuit aside, will say a lot about how we think about the world, our place in it, and the life we want to live.

The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr
Andrew Nemr, a critically acclaimed tap dance artist, explores the intersection of creativity and spiritual formation.
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