Seeking Out the Uncomfortable

Christina Harview's picture
Hello, reader. Today I will be talking about uncomfortable situations in life and how they can affect us positively if we allow them. Do not be afraid, however, to read on from this point—I have no intention of being the distributor of uncomfortable feelings (although that intent may change from this sentence to the next). Hopefully, after reading this paper, you will more often seek out the uncomfortable than avoid or ignore it. I want to provide a prescriptive redemption of uncomfortable situations. However, I am exploring discomfort from the point of view of the person feeling the emotion, not the person eliciting the emotion. I cannot endorse that we, as human beings, force others into uncomfortable situations. Yet, this paper is indubitably related to pedagogy in that it is a teacher’s job to open up new experiences to his/her students (be they uncomfortable or not). So although I am writing from an individual’s perspective and personal choice, the concepts may easily be translated from one role to the next as the reader sees fit. Lastly, I will tie in the concept of discomfort to my Emerging Genre class’s readings of and reactions to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Eventually, I hope to show that uncomfortable situations are an essential element of a weathered, informed, and intelligent human being and that they are necessary part of allowing the evolution of ideas to prosper.

Unless you live in Jessie’s Utopia—where every person is emotionally and physically self-sufficient—you will sometimes find yourself in uncomfortable situations. The anxiety that comes hand in hand with discomfort causes your body to react as though a real physical danger exists; the need for escape from the situation is completely natural. Often, true opinions are masked because even higher levels of discomfort could follow their escape (fear of disagreement or alienation can keep a person relatively silent). Why would anyone want to purposefully place themselves in such an uncomfortable situation? The answer: desensitization for the sake of rational thought and experience. The romantics out there are thinking “Oh boy—this ones a goner!” but please bear with me. The way I see it, uncomfortable situations will come up in life. We can either dodge them, ignore them, or deal with them; this paper proposes a method to achieve the latter. Why is it necessary for us to experience those things that make us uncomfortable? Because ignorance is not a virtue, because we should not flee from things just because they shake the foundation we stand on and question our convictions, because a closed mind is an incomplete individual. For goodness sake: hold tight to your convictions, your beliefs, and your faith in the world, but don’t keep them to yourself. Information begs to be shared; its reproduction is limited merely by the number of minds available to capture it. George Bernard Shaw said, “…if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.” If feeling uncomfortable can prevent us from sharing our opinions and ideas, then we must find a way to feel comfortable in uncomfortable situations. One way of doing this is to desensitize ourselves to the uncomfortable through experiential therapy.

Now, I don’t want to go deep into cognitive neuroscience or abnormal psychology because this paper is meant for a wider audience. Yet, it is interesting to connect this to something that most people can relate to: phobias. I, personally, am afraid of wasps. This is based on a negative experience I had while doing conservation work in New Hampshire in high school: long story short—I was chased by a nest of wasps for a mile and a half. Phobias work on a very different level than the feeling of “uncomfortable,” but the inner workings can be quite similar. Phobias and emotional discomfort replace rational thought with intellectual stagnation, anxiety, and fear. The most effective treatment for phobias is called exposure treatment; the patient is directly exposed to the phobic stimulus in order to immerse the individual in the anxiety reflex until they are desensitized to the phobic stimulus. I would, for example, be placed in a room of flying wasps and would probably have a full-blown panic attack. Within a couple weeks of doing this every other day, my phobia of wasps would be completely dissipated because I would be desensitized to them as an immediate threat to my well-being. The therapy is horrifying, but it is a good solution to a sometimes debilitating fear. Thinking of self-induced exposure treatment as a therapy for uncomfortable situations works the same way. One may feel uncomfortable seeing a naked man dancing on a stage for the first time, but if you had seen the dance 20 times before, the initial wave of anxiety would be long gone. So, in order to decrease the anxiety caused by discomfort in social situations, we must not escape from or ignore the situation, but allow ourselves to fully experience it for the sake of grasping a more complete understanding of the experience and in order to dull our own anxieties and allow our brains to think more rationally.

Oscar Wilde said, “Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.” Straight from the ad verecundiam vault, there it is people; as ironic as the statement may be, that is the value of experience. You are the only person who can get it for yourself and no one else can teach it to you. The only problem is: you have to learn through experience the value of experience itself! The concept is paradoxical, yes, but its value is immense. Unfortunately, you can only figure this out on your own (I beg you, reader, not to take my word for it [or Wilde’s for that matter] because I certainly don’t.)

Now that we have explored the rationale behind bringing yourself to experience the uncomfortable, we can look at the benefits of feeling comfortable in an uncomfortable situation. Because the anxiety would be diminished, it would be much easier to experience the situation fully rather than be distracted by the fleeting thoughts that accompany anxiety. One would also be able to develop rational thoughts on the circumstances and confront the situation directly. Sitting through the moment allows you to say “yes, I can bear it!” The real question is: should you have to? After experiencing the event in full, you can ask yourself how you feel about the situation. In my Emerging Genre’s class, we did just that in the forums after reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Marina Gallo said, “I don't like the way they make the slaves sound.” Alexandra Funk’s friends confronted her about carrying the book around in the dining hall: “Everyone laughed off the tension, but I still felt strange for the rest of the evening.” The general feelings of the class were described by Louisa Amsterdam as “…a shared discomfort (to put it lightly) about the way that Stowe portrays the speech of the slaves.” Another classmate of mine writing on the forums as egoodlett said that she “felt uncomfortable and upset at parts in this novel.” What is it about this classic novel that makes people so uncomfortable and what should we, as readers, do in response?

Discomfort regarding the portrayal of the slaves, the strong religious motif, the chauvinistic white characters, etcetera, may lead some people to put the book down before even finishing it. In our class, however, we were forced to finish it because it was part of our assignment and the base for discussion in class. This extra push of purpose guided the class into experiencing rather than ignoring or avoiding. Not only did we experience the novel in its totality, we reflected upon our feelings as well. At first, a few people in the class believed that the book was no longer of value in our society and that it should not be read in classrooms due to its highly controversial subject matter and writing style. Yet, I feel that as the pages turned, so did the opinions. After completion of the novel, many people felt differently about the book in general and saw its potential value to a reader of the twenty-first century. As the novel moved along, we became more desensitized to the vernacular of the slaves, the pious suggestions, and the righteous white figures to a point where we learned something about ourselves; I can deal with novels like this. It is after this that we must decide whether we should deal with novels like Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

After contemplating the use-value of novels that bring about a sense of ‘uncomfortableness,’ it seems clear to me that these novels are a gateway into experiential learning about the uncomfortable and adaptation to the feeling of uncomfortableness. They can teach us not only that there is something to be learned from that which makes us uncomfortable, but that we can learn from ourselves by forcing ourselves to deal with the uncomfortable rather than avoiding or ignoring it. Novels such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin can open up new worlds of negative emotion that I argue have a strong personal significance. Why feel uncomfortable due to ignorance when you can feel comfortable due to experience? Are you uncomfortable with nudity because you have not experienced it much or because it is somehow wrong or offensive? Are you uncomfortable with racism because it is wrong, or because you have not experienced it directly? We can postulate answers to these questions, but we cannot really answer them without the memory of our past experiences and the formulation of new ones in the future.

Before wrapping up, I think it is important that I clear a few thoughts that may be surfacing in the reader. This paper argues that we should become comfortable with the uncomfortable for the sake of allowing rational thought to flow freely. I am not arguing that things that make you uncomfortable should not make you uncomfortable or that it is okay to make other people uncomfortable. I am merely reflecting on the personal use-value of uncomfortable situations and hope to shed some optimistic light on unavoidable situations.

Ergo, the world of the uncomfortable, although highly anticipated and negative, has quite a bit of use-value that can be harvested through experiential learning and self-mediated exposure treatment for the sake of a clear mind. Novels such as Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin bring us to a point where we can delve into the multi-faceted levels of discomfort that have an element of teaching that can only be discovered upon reading and reflecting. From these novels, we can desensitize ourselves and learn more about why we feel uncomfortable and what response we deem as appropriate. Upon experiencing and reflecting, ideas and convictions will evolve; some will become stronger and more evidenced and some will break down under the weight of your own mind. This is how the world works; it is the survival of the fittest, be it species, ideas, or computer parts. As thinkers, we constantly weed out the unfit ideas. But how can we separate the weeds from the flowers without experience? I think that this paper makes clear the necessity of experience for recognizing and watering those plants and pulling the weeds. But in the end, it is the reflection that makes the flowers bloom.


Literature Cited

Stowe, Harriet and Ann Douglas. Uncle Tom's Cabin, or, Life among the Lowly. Harmondsworth Eng.: Penguin, 1981.


Anne Dalke's picture


Hello, writer.

Lots here that intrigues, and much more that puzzles and confuses. Let's see if I (or you) can dis-entangle the first from the second.

I agree entirely with you that discomfort is probably not only inevitable but, even more importantly, a positive feature. It is from differences, and associated discomfort, that new directions of exploration and movement arise. This approach is explored in a number of different places on Serendip; it describes not only new models of mental health (as on the page linked to above), but also varieties of scientific experience. Carl Sagan, for instance, who died ten years ago, and was a well-known champion of science's duty to probe and question--> without any limits, wrote,

"I think if we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from, we will have failed.....[The search for who we are] goes with a courageous intent to greet the universe as it really is, not to foist our emotional predisposition on it but to courageously accept what our explorations tell us."

Following Sagan, I would actually go further than you go above, to say that I think the job of teachers (like myself) is to induce discomfort, to nudge students out of their comfort zones, away from what they already think they know, by giving them new experiences that dis-comfort and unsettle them, experiences that they will need to make sense of in some way. Learning, understood from this perspective, does not just mean facing up to "unavoidable situations," as you say, but going further to seek them out. (I think of Alexandra's saying she took this genre course because it was the "one she was most afraid of" as a clear example of this.)

So far, so good. What that means, though, is that I have real questions about your advice to "hold tight to your convictions, your beliefs," and many questions too about your argument in favor of "desensitization for the sake of rational thought." I'm not following the analogy you develop with desensitizing for a phobia; if the goal of getting comfortable with discomfort is to expand our horizons and learn more, shouldn't the response to discomfort not be to "desensitize" us, but rather to increase our sensitivity? Your argument seems paradoxical: wouldn't "experiencing the situation fully" actually involve experiencing the anxiety, rather than desensitizing oneself to it?

Along these lines, I also found myself wanting fuller description--and concrete examples-- of the sort of learning that you think discomfort encourages. You describe your classmates' initial discomfort w/ Uncle Tom's Cabin, then say that "we became more desensitized" to both the piety and the racist vernacular of the novel. What's/where's your evidence for that claim? (I'd actually say the reverse, that we became more sensitized: more aware, not less, of the racial dimensions of Stowe's novel, and of the historical context--and contemporary residue--for what now appears to us so patently racist.)

So I think, finally, that it is this matter of adaptation that I most want to explore further with you. Discomfort can be/often is a signal to beware!/watch out! Humans are attached to being grounded ...and to have the foundations we can rely on...cast into the shadow of existential uncertainty, is sure to agitate some gut wrenching reaction. So I'm especially intrigued and puzzled by your final paragraph about "weeding out unfit ideas"; this makes it sound like you think we can control outcomes--which all farmers and most neurobiologists know cannot happen. Your analogy of weeding makes the process too easy and predictable and well,




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