Comfort Zones

Today is going to be a first for me, I’m going to cover the same overarching topic on this blog and on my “I’m Thinking About…” movie analysis site. The matter of comfort zones is closely related to habits. Very often, the habits we adapt lay down the boundaries of the life we are comfortable living and while good habits are essential, there’s also the risk that they not only constrain us, but ultimately enslave us, forcing us into patterns in life that are not our own.

Here on this site, I want to look at comfort zones as a political phenomenon. We all create our safe zones in life, the people who we feel most comfortable with, sources of information we find most trustworthy and political figures we feel some kinship with. Every political comfort zone comes with a narrative attached. These days, those comfort zones are getting smaller for everyone, the narratives more tightly composed, and, as a result, we seem to be living in different worlds even with people we pass on a daily basis.

Given the radical cultural, technological and political shifts we have witnessed in the past two decades, I believe that we need an equally radical new approach to dealing with the outside world, one that shouldn’t create outcomes all that different if the people and the sources of information we come across shifts. Simply put, I think we need to become radically skeptical.

By that I don’t mean that we should distrust science or consider all journalism fake news. Rather, I think we need to apply the same level of rigor to the information we receive from our closest friends and allies as we do from the people we consider our adversaries. If you are in a conversation in which you find yourself in complete agreement with another, the first question that should pop into your mind should be “how could we be wrong about this?” And if you are in a conversation with someone where your views are diametrically opposed, what you be asking “is there any element in this discussion where we might be in agreement? And if so, can that agreement be built upon?” Or as Montaigne wrote:

No powerful mind stops within itself: it is always stretching out and exceeding its capacities. It makes sorties which go beyond what it can achieve; it is only half-alive if it is not advancing, pressing forward, getting driven into a corner and coming to blows; its inquiries are shapeless and without limits; its nourishment consists in amazement, the hunt and uncertainty, as Apollo made clear enough to us by his speaking (as always) ambiguously, obscurely and obliquely, not glutting us but keeping us wondering and occupied. It is an irregular activity, never-ending and without pattern or target. Its discoveries excite each other, follow after each other and between them produce more.

In other words, we need to become more comfortable with ambiguity and the conflicts, internal and external, that result. We should try to look at mystery and oddness as our friends, not things to be explained away with overarching theories or imagined conspiracies. The strangeness and complexity of our current world make it open to surprising influences if we are willing to accept the currents and not fight against them. Or as Montaigne put it, we all want to apply our experience in life to everything new, but miss something vital in the process:

All things are connected by some similarity; yet every example limps and any correspondence which we draw from experience is always feeble and imperfect; we can nevertheless find some corner or other by which to link our comparisons. And that is how laws serve us: they can be adapted to each one of our concerns by means of some twisted, forced or oblique interpretation.

So, instead of looking at the world of 2020 and thinking “Oh my God, everything horrible is happening at once,” we also have the opportunity to view it as “wow, we are living in completely unique times. No one’s experience means a thing as this unfolds.” As we work to endure and survive this, what unique contribution can we make? There’s no preordained ending to any of this, not even the turn of a calendar to 2021. What we make of this time is entirely up to us and we are all equal experts at surviving 2020. There’s just as much opportunity to make it a turning point towards growth and progress, both personal and cultural, as there is for it to be the beginning of an age of destruction.