I try not to create resolutions, per se, but around this time of year I tend to do a fair amount of thinking about ways to get better in the upcoming year. As such, lately I’ve been thinking a bit about comfort and how it relates to being a better person and was reminded of something in Neal Stephenson’s Anathem. The story is kind of long and complicated so I’m not going to provide a plot recap or anything like that because it’s not all that relevant to the point I’m trying to make. But, I have read the book twice and really like it so if you’re up for a 1000 page philosophical/sci-fi romp (that even includes a made-up language!), I highly recomend it.

Anyway, in the story there’s this monastic order that, throughout the years, has dedicated itself to a particular type of martial arts. The order is called the “Ringing Vale” and their martial arts practice is referred to as “vlor,” (short for “Vale Lore”). What’s more interesting than the marital arts, though, is their concept of “emergence,” which came about when the original members of the order found themselves in a confrontation with some outsiders. Many of the monks had rudimentary hand-to-hand combat skills, but, as the story goes, “They had never used their skills outside of a gym, but they now found themselves thrust into a position where they had to take action. Some of their number were killed. Some of the martial artists performed well, others froze up and did no better than those who’d had no training at all. That sort of situation became known as an emergence…. They spent almost as much time thinking about the concept of emergence as they did in physical training — the idea being that all the training in the world was of no use, maybe even worse than useless, if you did not know when to use it.”

So these “Valers” dedicate their lives to practicing hand-to-hand combat and learning everything they can about their art. However, all of this training and studying is done in the isolation of their order. When they get out into the real world, which happens pretty infrequently (being monks and all), they are elated if they can find authentic situations where they can apply their skills and knowledge. This “application of skills” is kind of the whole point of their lives so, for obvious reasons, they view it as an honor and an opportunity that shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Back on Earth, I’d be willing to wager that most people tend to view the good life as having the least amount of stress and discomfort. We long for convenience and creature comforts and, for the most part, put a ton of effort into avoiding situations where we’ll be stressed. I know that’s certainly the case with me. Here’s a quick example.

Generally speaking, I’m not the most comfortable in large groups and tend do better in small, intimate settings. Consequently, I shy away from public speaking and sometimes get nervous when I have to engage with a lot of different people. This probably fits the classic description of being “introverted” and I’m OK with that. You gotta be who you are. But I also recognize that a life lived at home by oneself is pretty dull. So over the years I’ve tried to get better at engaging with people. I’ve read some books, studied how other people interact, and thought a lot about what makes me uncomfortable in certain settings. But after all that I still find myself doing what I can to avoid situations where I might be uncomfortable.

So in the spirit of the Valers I’ve recently been looking for ways to seek out opportunities where I can get better at the things I not very good at. Or at least not very comfortable with. It’s a subtle shift in mindset: I’m trying to view uncomfortable situations as opportunities for improvement rather than something to avoid. So a potential “nightmare” becomes a positive challenge – something to embrace and seek out rather than something to simply “gut out.” Maybe this is actually “the good life” – one where, like the Valers, you seek out these “emergences” that will test who you are and show you where you need to improve. How else can you improve yourself if you’re never tested? And what’s the point of working on a skill if you never put it into practice?

It’s hard for me to write about stuff like this since I feel like it mostly comes off as either trite or really obvious. But sometimes I think we’re blind to the obvious or at least become desensitized to it. Instead of looking at life’s challenges as, at best, a pain in the ass or, at worst, something to avoid at all costs, it might be helpful to instead be grateful for the opportunity to “emerge” and prove what we can or can’t do. In my case, that means more discomfort, stress, and, ultimately, more failure. But again, maybe that’s not such a bad thing.