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The Mortality Club

Beware the Shrinking Comfort Zone

Last Tuesday I had an 11:00 appointment with my cardiologist. She’s in Seattle, which is ninety miles from where I live. A few years ago, I didn’t think twice about driving down and back. It was, as they say, “a piece of cake.” My husband, David, used to accompany me. We would use the appointment as an opportunity to get out of the house and do something interesting. Often, we’d go out to lunch and then spend the afternoon at the art museum. Or, we’d explore the new technology offerings at the Apple store. Or, we’d just walk the city streets getting what I called our “city fix.”

We scarcely noticed when we made the transition from voluntarily accompanying one another to medical appointments to the stage when it became necessary. Driving both ways and enduring the inevitable stress of a medical examination became too fatiguing for me. We got to the point when one of us would drive down, and the other, drive back. As that happened,I began to find it too physically demanding to see the doctor and then fill the day with other diversions, especially since those other diversions were located in the center of town, even further from our home. “We’ll see the exhibit next time,” I'd suggest to David. “After all, we don’t want to get stuck in rush hour traffic.”

Increasingly, the medical appointment became the focus of the day. We would stop by Costco on the way home and do the weekly shopping so that we could tell ourselves that we had made good use of our time. What we failed to realize was that, as the years passed, our comfort zone had slowly but surely begun to shrink. At first, we were no longer “comfortable” driving that distance alone. Then, driving in rush hour traffic began to cause us angst. After that, having too many engagements in one day exceeded my tolerance level. (Not David's: he's still comfortable filling the day to the max.)

Last week, we finally woke up and realized what was happening. As we headed out of our driveway, with David behind the wheel, we realized that we were both trepidatious about the journey. Why? Because it was raining hard. Even though we drive an SUV that can hold its own, we both find it challenging to have to drive on the interstate in rainy weather under perpetually deep grey skies. We are no longer the young, aggressive drivers who hug the rear of other cars, impatiently waiting for the opportunity to pass them. We are now the “sensible” drivers who leave a hundred yards or more between us and the car in front so the wheels of that car don’t throw additional water on our windshield, making it even more difficult to see. The more aggressive driving pattern is now beyond our comfort zone.

As he entered the ramp onto the interstate, David said to me, “It’s a good thing to force yourself out of your comfort zone. If you don’t, it will keep shrinking, you right along with it.”

It is a good thing to realize the impact that our comfort zones have on the decisions that we make, and, therefore, on our lives. Only if we do so can we assess when the parameters of “the zone” are propelling us to make wise and sensible choices, like driving more slowly, or when these unseen limitations are unnecessarily curtailing our opportunities and narrowing our choices.

If allowed to go unchecked and unchallenged, our shrinking comfort zones can ultimately result in voluntary house arrest. To the extent that our bodies allow, we need to fight against this tendency. We have to purposefully do things that are outside the boundaries of our comfort zone. I have to fight against my growing dislike of driving anywhere on the interstate, in rain or shine. I do that by consciously choosing to take that route even when I could reach my destination by using only back roads. Each time I do so, I feel more confident and less anxious about highway driving.

Comfort zones affect every area of our lives. If allowed to prevail unchecked, they will turn all of our lives into a string of habits that defy variation, and which create a terrible sameness about our days. Our diets begin to be less varied. Our vacations start to assume a predictable pattern; we return to the places that were the most comfortable for us. Our pool of friends becomes static, as we lose the social and psychological energy to make new ones. The way we spend time with those friends becomes increasingly “as expected.” We see the same people at the same events or in the same venues; after all, that’s comfortable. Devoid of tension and conflict, but deadly tedious.

If we fail to recognize that our comfort zones have an impact, and that they are shrinking as we get older, we are at risk of stripping all sense of adventure out of the last phase of our lives. Key to that adventure is curiosity. Curiosity feeds on newness. To invite newness into our lives is to embrace the unknown. Our shrinking comfort zones tend to regard the unknown as something to be avoided; as something that could make us uncomfortable, or increase the tension levels in our lives.

Tension can be a very positive thing. Remove all tension from the human body and we become like drunkards, falling down and unable to move. Remove all tension from our lives, and we lose the impetus to change, to make things better, to explore and to learn. We create tension within ourselves when we challenge the confines of our shrinking comfort zones.

“I’ve never eaten scallops before. What will happen if I try them? Oh dear, perhaps I’ll get a stomach ache.” Perhaps you will. On the other hand, perhaps you’ll discover a new culinary favorite.

“I’ve never taken a cruise before. What if I get seasick? What if I don’t like any of the people I meet?” If you get seasick, it will pass. Take along a good book, in case you don’t meet anyone with whom you want to spend time. On the other hand, the sea breezes might invigorate you, and you just might meet your next best friend.
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