Thursday, October 17, 2013

#124 Comfort and Judgment

Dear all,
We're in the midst of a string on stunningly beautiful fall days, our family is flourishing, and my biggest complaint is that there are more things I would love to do than can begin to fit into a day--and there is the constant balancing act:  fully appreciating beauty and well-being while not being seduced into blindness and complacency. I'm trying to get back to the discipline of noticing the times in my days when what I am doing "rings true", with a goal of being more attentive and choosing ever more awarely. 
I send my love.

Comfort and judgment

Chuck and I had a difference of opinion about how to get a crowd of folks up to his brothers’ farm.  We would fit in two cars, but it would be more comfortable and convenient to take three.  Since it was his birthday celebration, I didn’t press the point.  Three cars were, indeed, very convenient, and the impact on the planet of those extra hours of car driving was barely worth noticing in the larger scheme of things.

The part of the conversation that stuck in my mind, however, was our interchange about comfort and judgment.  When I said that I wasn’t a big fan of arguments based on comfort, he said that was easily seen as judgmental, particularly by those for whom comfort has been scarce.  I felt painfully torn.  One of the dearest wishes of my heart is to leave behind forever the spirit of judgmentalism that pervaded my childhood.  Yet I also can never forget a little card that my mother had posted above her desk:  “Convenience pollutes.”

All the disposables—the plastic, paper and foam of fast food and picnics, diapers, paper towels, juice boxes—made to be used once and thrown away; those quick errands where driving can save so much time; the second car that avoids having to take the public transportation schedule into account; the pre-processed, pre-cut, pre-packaged food that is so much quicker to prepare; the washer-dryer in every house and the lawn-mower in every garage; all take a toll on the earth’s resources and capacity to absorb waste.  There’s no doubt: convenience pollutes.

I’m thinking now that comfort also pollutes.  Year-round climate control, big luxurious cars, that long hot shower in the morning, the freedom from having to be jostled by crowds, first class airplane seats, golf carts—the list could go on. Loving comfort has its own traps in terms of what we will trade away for it.  Feeling entitled to comfort elevates the problem to a whole new level: who would I fight to hang on to what I have come to believe is rightfully mine?

I do believe that comfort has a place in this world, as when someone is sick, or dying, or grieving a great loss, or when someone has exerted enormously.  Coming from the root, “to strengthen greatly”, it is an appropriate response to particular circumstances, a mechanism to soften adversity or make a time of challenge more bearable.  But I baulk at the idea that most of us in the industrialized West live in such a state of chronic challenge that we require round-the-clock comfort.

Also, if we have it all the time, if we come to expect it as our due and make sure it’s always present, then its utility as a means of softening adversity is lost.  It has become the new normal, and something more comforting, more comfortable must be found to take its place.  I’m troubled by the implications that this dynamic of escalation has—on our psyches, on our connection to others with less access to comfort-providing resources, and on the health of our planet. I much prefer a bracing level of discomfort, so we can better appreciate and truly luxuriate in our comfort when it comes.

But what about judgment?  Theoretically I could just learn to respect everyone’s different decisions around comfort. Yet I find myself unwilling to concede, unwilling to completely surrender this territory to personal choice.  I don’t see a lot of clear thinking here, with all our wounds and insecurities making us so vulnerable to the lures of comfort.  Add in a multi-million dollar comfort-selling industry, and it’s hard to make truly free choices in this area.

My mind jumps to the deep desire my young children had for the junky plastic toys that surrounded them—on television, in the stores, in the hands of their friends—and how mad I got at their upset when those toys broke.  It was a struggle to be on their side at those moments, but I finally found a way to be true to both of us.  “I’m so sorry,” I would say. “The people who make those toys just think about money, and don’t care about what it feels like for children when they break.”

Maybe I can learn from that hard-fought victory to be on the side of people who seem to be choosing short-term comfort over their long-term psychic well-being and the overall health of our biosphere.  “I hate it that this issue of comfort is such a loaded one.  What a confusing mix of different personal preferences, standards, levels of adversity (past and present), histories around discomfort, takes on what’s due to us and to the future.  Add in a system that is squeezing out sources of real comfort, like time with loved ones, and focused on convincing us we need and deserve any product or service they can make a buck off of—and the chances of having a relaxed and mutually enlightening conversation on this topic recede toward zero. But I want to try.  I want us to be on each other’s side as we puzzle this thing out together.”

O and P

His farm is in Jamaica
not far outside of Kingston
in the low hills, not the famous higher ones.
Going as often as he can
always on the lookout for cheap flights
he grows so many kinds of fruit that I lose track
--and coffee too.

All this I learn
one morning as I’m heading home
from gardening
basket of produce on my arm.

He’d honked his horn and stopped
leaned over from the driver’s seat
said he knew me from my gardening.

He tells his name, and asks me mine
treats me as a peer who knows a common craft.
And so we talk
Omar and Pamela
one farmer to another,
and I walk home enriched by
a new friend.

Imagine:  A new economy is possible!

Saving labor?

With labor as an expensive part of the production process, the focus of technological innovation over the last half century on saving labor has seemed a straightforward and logical one.  Why pay a pricey person if you could get a machine, created from cheap materials by cheap energy, to do the job as well or even better?  It’s hard to get our minds around the reality that natural resources and fossil fuels, along with the ability of the earth to absorb our wastes, are now the limiting factors.   We are facing a future where productive processes that use LESS resources and fuel, and MORE human labor, will be better positioned to address the dual issues of scarce resources and high unemployment.  Our concept of efficiency, which is at the heart of how we evaluate our economic choices, now needs to be completely rethought.

Some things that have made me hopeful recently:

A European Union directive that by 2019 member countries collect and recycle 65% of the weight of all electronics put on sale, or 85% of all e-waste, with retailers required to take e-waste from consumers.
A new non-profit supermarket that has just opened in the distressed food-desert city of Chester PA, said to be the first such supermarket in the country.
An initiative in Paraguay where poor rural mothers learn to be more responsive to young children's needs, and in the process are empowered to become actors in their communities.
Pope Francis, again, and again.

New:  posts on other people's blogs: 

More resources:
NEW:  Check out my friend Daniel Hunter's new book, a narrative of direct action campaigning:  Strategy & Soul: A Campaigner's Tale of Fighting Billionaires, Corrupt Officials, and Philadelphia Casinos:

Muscle Building for Peace and Justice; a Non-Violent Workout Routine for the 21st Century--an integration of much of my experience and thinking over the years:  (or just google the title), a website that I've contributed to often (check the archives), a home for all the parenting
writing I've done over the past 20 years. START: a way to study and work together with
others to create a better world.

For earlier columns, go to  I'm currently posting at

My favorite magazine:  YES! Magazine reframes the biggest problems of our time in terms of their solutions. Online and in print, they outline a path forward with in-depth analysis, tools for citizen engagement, and stories about real people working for a better world: