Learning to Love Discomfort
A few years from hell came with a surprising upside
Any yoga teacher worth their savasana will tell you that the pose only begins the moment you want to leave it. Yet most of us, in our daily lives, will do everything we can to avoid discomfort. We shy away from difficult conversations. We numb uncomfortable feelings with alcohol, food or gambling. We linger in bad relationships to sidestep what we perceive as the far worse pain of being alone, socially shunned, untethered.
Discomfort, however, is where the magic lies. It is both the key to transformation as well as proof, once we have overcome it, that we can survive anything.
I learned this lesson for the first time when I was 22 and covering the end of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It was February of 1989. I was the sole woman and sole journalist traveling with a group of rebel fighters. Our truck had broken down in the middle of the Hindu Kush mountains, mines were everywhere, snow was falling, and we were a two-day walk from shelter. Oh, and I had my period and no tampons.
For the first two hours of that miserable hike, I fought the discomfort, body and soul. I pictured my tiny apartment in Paris, how nice it would be to be curled up inside it with a book and a cup of tea. I cried. I chastised myself for being foolhardy enough to cover a war. I yearned to be elsewhere. Then, somewhere around the third hour or so, I gave in to the discomfort. I breathed through it. I noticed the cold, my frigid toes, the warmth of the blood trickling down my thigh. I became blindingly present. Each painful footstep, I knew, was bringing me closer to the mountain cave we would call home.
And there was an odd joy in finally accepting that the only way out of this extreme discomfort was to move through it.
I’ve thought about that freezing, bloody hike hundreds of times since then, particularly during the past few years, when I’ve experienced not only the pain and discomfort of marital rupture, but also several surgeries, a near-death bleed-out, sexual harassment, job loss, callous lovers, parenting challenges, and financial ruin.
Yet concomitant with so much pain and loss has come more joy than I’ve ever known. Joy that comes from simply leaning in to the discomfort and breathing through it. It’s the joy of becoming more vulnerable–during the search for new love and new work; during the acquisition of new skills; while making new friends, in letting go of the false god of perfection.
I am still mired in this intense period of transition and annihilation, and I’m not sure when I’ll emerge out of it, but every day I wake up, put my feet on the floor, and take one more step into the unknowable future, grateful for the air in my lungs, for the sight in my eyes, for the love in my heart, for the thoughts in my brain, and for the discomforting challenges of life’s journey.
Deborah Copaken is a NYT bestselling author, journalist, screenwriter and photographer.
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Yay! Love this! Thanks, again, Deborah!
Deborah, Thanks for sharing fearlessly and poetically.
This was excellent. I like this approach to fighting through discomfort instead of the “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” platitude. Cancer didn’t kill me, but I wouldn’t say it made me stronger, it just stole a couple years of my life (I am one of the fortunate ones who gets to live a life after cancer). Deborah gets it right in this article. Avoiding discomfort is not the right way to live, you have to learn to breath into it, feel it, and push through it. And if you’re really wise, learn from it.
What a beautiful and valuable piece.
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