When I logged into my e-mail today, I clicked on brainsparker (as I often do if there is nothing more pressing) This is what came up:
“Great Things Never Came From Comfort Zones”
I found that both unsettling and soothing. Most of the time I feel just a tiny bit uncomfortable. I don’t quite fit it; I don’t look quite right today; My thoughts are jumbled; I put that meeting in on my calendar on the wrong day–damn! Underlying this is my fading but still genuine love of chaos (aka, “real life”). Just enough so that I am always a little on edge. I hate lists (too confining), excel spreadsheets, and prefer making decisions (after some agony) based on heart rather than head.
But it often feels as if my needs are changing. Controlled anarchy that was fun in my 30s – two young children, multiple pets, an antique house that required endless maintenance, a demanding job – would feel unbearably complicated now. I can’t multi-task the way I used to – and I don’t want to because it distracts me from things that I want to do (writing, knitting, and drinking coffee).
Is it being older that makes me yearn for “flow” and the sense of being lost in one activity or thought? Or, have I just worn myself out from years of struggling to find something that others might consider “balance”?
I was talking to my friend Cryss today and she reminded me that both of us are “abstract-random”. And we are still often uncomfortable, even now that we are Medicare eligible. Julie King hints at the origins when she says that “People with this thinking style dislike dictatorial leaders, narrow boundaries, unfriendly people and competition. They also like to work on things at a high-level and can be frustrated when asked to focus on one thing at a time or to look at or share exact details” (Canadaone.com). Ouch–too close to the bone. But abstract-random can be creative – and creativity is what great aging is all about (at least according to gerontologist Gene Cohen).
But even now, when I am fully focused and “in the groove”, I am still a teeny bit uncomfortable because what I want is just out of reach.
What is comfort anyway? I dove into Google Scholar (one of my favorite places to be if I am restless), and searched for writing on “comfort zones” before the 1980s. It was all about temperature control. One title, “Thermal Sensations of Workers in Light Industry in Summer”, gives you a good sense of what I found.
There was a single startling exception, a 1978 article in Social Problems about women…
…and cultural mandates. The authors concluded that “comfort zones” (in quotes) were medical specialties where married professional women did not feel the derision, rejection, and hostility that they experienced as normal most of the time.
Patricia Bourne and Norma Wikler, the authors of the study, provided the “aha” moment that I was searching for: women who wanted it all – marriage, children, and a professional career – were rarely comfortable. And they were me.
When I went to college in 1963, I assumed that I would marry a nice man (preferably a professor), live in a pleasant home (preferably eclectic MCM) and raise creative, smart (preferably two) children. By 1967, when I left with my BA, I knew that I would choose a different path . But that path was not easy. In 1968, no woman had ever been tenured in the sociology department at Columbia University. When I finally left that was still true. I married, but in New York at that time, keeping your “maiden name” required a huge bureaucratic and legal rigmarole, and finding an apartment with two last names (are they living in sin?) was not always easy either. So I took my first husband’s name. I saw only one woman in a senior position until I was in mid-career.
So I made choices to feel as comfortable as I could. For a while I worked outside an academic job. I then chose to work in education rather than sociology or a business school because it was felt more comfortable. I enjoyed my small victories and a sense that being a bit unpredictable and on the edge would bring me a little strength in a world that was not designed for women. Yup, that meant that I tended to “sweat the small stuff” because sometimes what other people saw as small I thought of as much bigger. Sometimes I was right, sometimes I wasn’t…
But now the comfort of feeling that I belong seems almost within reach. When I look around at work, men and women are more able to talk about balancing family and work. My second marriage feels, as the British say, “bespoke” and we have figured out routines that allow an abstract-random person to live with someone whose way of being in the world is more concrete. Life just feels – well, mostly comfortable. And not boring. But it is hard not to ask whether feeling more comfortable will somehow diminish me. Do great things never emerge from comfort? Does thinking or writing in a way that is challenging to me and others require discomfort?
Or, is it just a result of aging — the much quoted finding that most people become happier as they get older? A response to the zeitgeist, where comfort becomes an essential respite from the daily bludgeoning of the national and international news? Am I finally learning lessons that most people “got” when they were much younger? Reflecting on the connection between comfort and creativity/great things raises more questions….
And, as for the thermal stuff, they still keep all restaurants, movie theaters, and offices set for temperatures that men prefer – Olga Khazan says that most women like them warmer and perform better when the thermostat is up a few extra degrees. Women and older people (older women?) are, as one article puts it “thermally dissatisfied” – out of their comfort zone.
Thank you Karen, this was interesting. I am one year older so our era is similar. I wonder if my wiring or the times had more influence on me. I was in K-12 classrooms for a short while, in grad school, teaching teachers and fieldwork at U of GA, and then directing field work in R and D for 20 years before 20 years on EDL faculty at the university. At McREL, unpredictability was a part of life, regardless of how organized and prepared I was. I loved it: the challenges, diversity, special places, and ALL the people. There were times I had to face the impact. One May, a McREL colleague told me to take a some time to relax because “It always takes you a couple of weeks after working constantly in the field during the school year to stop functioning on an adrenaline high,” I suspect gender had an influence on this—the woman working-harder need when men had so much control. University life has been calmer because of the culture, though my impatience with a HE lack of urgency to “just solve the problem” clearly lives on. Throughout my career, cooking, reading, and gardening have been my mindfulness places. At the end of a day in the garden, I have little recollection of any thinking at all. Now, at 74, this will be a final quiet 20th year at the university. The grant ended and I have no formal leadership responsibilities., I told the dean my plan for this year: teach and advise ❤️; mentor my Fulbright scholar; support a state-wide leadership initiative for superintendents; and write: and, of course, more time to read and watch my owl, the hummingbirds, and Monarchs in the garden.
I love your reference to the “adrenaline high” — I always get it (as I am currently) when I work internationally and am in a totally open learning mode. I want to learn how to be open but less adrenaline-fueled. Will keep you posted!
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