We often live by notions and aphorisms, sometimes perhaps more than we should. The greatest danger comes when guiding concepts become clichés, yet we still depend on them for understanding and direction. A number of times recently, I have run across the old saw that we should “get out of our comfort zone,” which has prompted me to ponder the value of this geographic metaphor that many take as an unquestioned truth.
“Getting out of our comfort zone” does have good intentions and benefits. The idea is that growth depends on pushing beyond boundaries. Robert Browning’s dictum that our reach should exceed our grasp is largely true. Our limits — physical, intellectual, artistic, emotional — cannot be transcended and thus extended unless we push beyond them. This process can indeed be uncomfortable, leading to the notion of the “comfort zone.” But our concept of this “zone” tags it as a negative, stagnant place.
I question our negative posture toward the comfort zone on two fronts, first by challenging the negativity of the comfort zone itself. Yes, we need to stretch our boundaries. We need to interact with people who are different from us, and we need to have new experiences if we are to become fully functional human beings, just as we need to push our bodies beyond their resting limits during exercise. But even with exercise, the actual bodily repair, growth and increased health happen when we return to rest. The real change happens when we are back in the comfort zone.
Geographer David Seamon describes the sense of “at-homeness” as a nearly Zen-like state where we are so immersed in, part of, comfortable with and secure in our place that we move in almost unconscious ways through the spaces and routines of daily existence. This may seem like ultimate boredom to some, but it’s this groundwork of familiarity that leads to what Seamon calls “time-space routines,” even “body ballets” and “place ballets” that suggest something more transcendent and beautiful.
Being so totally immersed in such a “comfort zone” — what Seamon would call a “field of prereflective action grounded in the body” — is what allows us to move to a higher plane of consciousness, understanding and discernment. Yes, we want to experience the unfamiliar, but ultimately we do so to incorporate it back into the “comfort zone” itself, so as to continually enhance our lives. The comfort zone is where we live most of our lives and where real personal growth happens. Otherwise, we are just chasing sensations and stimuli that become enervating rather than enriching. The repose of the comfort zone is in fact our best place, our center.
The second presumption about the comfort zone that I’d like to challenge is its supposed shallowness. Here is where the place-based nature of the comfort zone really comes into its own. Once we’ve reached the Zen-like plane of an ever-expanding center, we can focus on the larger purposes of life. If we pursue a line of thinking such as Wendell Berry’s or bell hooks’ — for whom a deep sense of belonging, an ethic of care for the natural world around us and an embrace of a mutual fate with our fellow community members is in essence the purpose of our lives — then our grounding, our center needs to be deepened more than broadened. New sensations experienced, new places visited, new people met don’t mean much if the encounter is fleeting. They are ephemeral, wisping out of our consciousness and our life’s “body ballet” more quickly than not. Our experiences and encounters gain meaning through familiarity and repetition, not a brief, transient touch and then moving on to something else.
We should turn our attention toward deepening where we are more than reaching for where we will be only briefly. As Scott Russell Sanders says in his preface to Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World, “The work of belonging to a place is never finished.” If we are thinking of our comfort zone in a more geographical sense — as the place where we live — there are endless opportunities to slip the bonds of our personal, inner comfort zone.
There are all kinds of people different from you. All it takes is attending an ethnic cultural event, visiting a house of worship of another belief, volunteering to help those in another socioeconomic class — the possibilities are endless. And hopefully some of those “different” people will become part of your life on a more long-term basis — something that is less likely to happen on a jaunt to another place. The history of your community can be a bottomless well of fascination and knowledge. Understanding your local ecosystem and how to care for the land around you, as Wendell Berry tells us, is an intergenerational project, not containable even within one lifetime.
As you deepen your knowledge of the place you’re in, you will no doubt encounter a lot that will make you uncomfortable, and that you will be able to bring back with you into your personal comfort zone for individual growth — and you’ll be building social capital, sharing your talents with others and practicing stewardship of nature for your community all at the same time.
Deepening your comfort zone in place — in both the personal and geographical senses of the word — does not limit your understanding of the world as some claim. Quite the contrary. Russell Sanders tells us that being grounded in the earth and neighborhood nearby helps us “recognize connections to the rest of the planet” if we see our home “as a focus of processes that extend over the earth.”
Of course, you should do some of those other things in life — visit places and people away from home, try something new in an exotic locale. But at the same time we must nurture, care for and dwell in our comfort zone — as an inner place where our new experiences can be transformed into personal growth, as a personal space where we can enact our best talents on a foundation of smooth familiarity and as a home ground that we can commit to deepening and enriching, for ourselves and others, by both being present here and expanding the boundaries of this place that we share.
Thomas Dean has gotten out of his comfort zone in Iowa City for 22 years. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 196.