The Irreplaceable Value of Discomfort

Posted: August 10, 2020 by Isaac Cross in Uncategorized

You think discomfort is bad. We build a lot of our lives and the choices we make around achieving or maintaining comfort. But discomfort is absolutely essential and if you hope to be a good, well-developed human being, you have to embrace discomfort and seek it out.

Simple Creatures - Thanks, I Hate It (2019, File) | Discogs

OK, hang on…

Let’s take a step back. The first thing we should make sure we clear up is the notion of “bad” emotions or “negative” emotions. There is no such thing.

Every emotion is good.

What I mean by that is that every emotion serves a purpose. We have survived, as a species, because of our emotions. Whenever we experience something, our emotional systems stores the feeling of that experience and when faced with a similar situation in the future, that system pulls that feeling to the surface so we can remember and act based on that memory.

Without our emotions, we repeat mistakes. Without our emotions, we lack empathy. Without our emotions, we can’t be a collective. Without our emotions, we are nothing but selfish predators with no purpose but to live one more day.

It is our emotions that make us bigger than that. And at the heart of that experiential memory system is discomfort.

“But, I wanna feel GOOD!”

Pleasurable emotions are awesome, but we don’t learn from them in the same way. When we experience pleasure, the only lesson we take away is “that was fun, let’s do it again.”

(There actually CAN be a deeper analysis of the experience of pleasure and I will probably write about that another time, but people know they like pleasure, I don’t need to tell them why for them to seek it out.)

When we experience discomfort, there is a greater opportunity for growth, but only if we embrace the emotions and listen to what they are telling us.

A few years ago, I toured a private art gallery in Denver called the Dikeou Collection. The gallery is… unique. It boasts a collection of pieces that are quite unusual and often have a physical element, which made the art somewhat more experiential. In one room, the artist had constructed a giant wooden block that prevented you from crossing to the opposite door without climbing up and over the thing, which we were all encouraged to do.

Denver's best-kept art secret is on the 16th Street Mall ...

And then we came to the office for the collection, which had been styled to look like a baseball field.

DEJA ZING: Trip out on Misaki Kawai's “Vitamin Island”

I and the dozen or so others were told the story of the room, and how there could be no better place to work than first base on the field at Yankee Stadium and why they like baseball and that sort of thing. As the tour guide is talking, she picks up a few baseballs and has us start tossing them to each other, playing a little game of catch while she’s giving the spiel.

And then she reached a part of the routine where she informed us that the baseballs we had all been casually tossing around were all autographed by Babe Ruth and we were all participating in the slow destruction and devaluing of what would otherwise be treasured pieces of sports memorabilia.

I happened to be holding on of them as this revelation occurred and looked in my hands to confirm that there was, indeed, a signature and that it was gradually being worn and smudged away.

The shock and discomfort I felt in that moment was so intense I can still feel it years later. It hit me harder than almost any piece of art I have ever experienced. I remember that more vividly than any “pleasurable” piece of art I’ve ever experienced. I remember that more clearly than seeing the Mona Lisa or the Venus. I remember it more clearly than the Picasso room at the Musée d’Orsay.

And more importantly. When I left the museum, I went and sat down and thought about WHY I felt that way. Why did I care? Why did it matter? How are my value systems constructed? Is it right or wrong that I value an object like that and was upset at the notion of damaging it? Why did my relationship to an object change because of the contribution of a person I don’t know?

I changed because of that experience. And it wasn’t because of the pleasurable experience of getting to see a cool autographed baseball. It was because of the discomfort I felt from the full experience.

Embrace the pain

Pleasure motivates us, but discomfort and painful emotions make us grow. If you avoid discomfort, you will stagnate.

I’m not saying we can’t ever have comfort or pleasure or that we should feel bad when we do. I’m not saying that at all. But your pleasure has to be colored in. It has to be flavored. It has to be fed so you can be more than you were. And it is discomfort that moves us in that direction.

So while we certainly shouldn’t eschew pleasure (I am in favor of hedonism and the frequent and full experience of pleasurable sensations and experiences), we also shouldn’t forget to find opportunities for discomfort. We definitely shouldn’t work to prevent ourselves from experiencing discomfort and, more importantly, we shouldn’t demand that the world help us to do so.

That’s why I don’t do trigger or content warnings and I don’t advise other people to, either. (hello, angry emails)

I will not help you sterilize your existence

Think of discomfort like germs (microorganisms). We, as humans, cannot survive without them. If you weigh 200 pounds, roughly 2-6 pounds of that are the microorganisms keeping you alive. We need germs.

But when someone is immunocompromised, normally harmless germs can become deadly, so they have to take precautions to keep themselves safe that would be unreasonable for a person who isn’t compromised. Similarly, a person with PTSD or other serious mental health issues can develop “triggers” (A trauma trigger is a psychological stimulus that prompts recall of a previous traumatic experience. The stimulus itself need not be frightening or traumatic and may be only indirectly or superficially reminiscent of an earlier traumatic incident, such as a scent or a piece of clothing.)

Unfortunately, a certain collection of people (mostly on the internet) have corrupted the idea of “triggers” to instead mean: “Anything that makes you uncomfortable” and insist that every creating or distributing content should provide warnings for everything in it that may make someone somewhere uncomfortable.

That is like expecting everyone in the world to fully sterilize every object you purchase or warn you of every possible contaminant it might have been exposed to. It’s simply not realistic. Similarly, it is not realistic to expect everyone who has anything to say to first pause and warn you that something they say might make you uncomfortable.

If you are the emotional equivalent of immunocompromised and you have trauma or other other emotional disorder that makes you more sensitive than the average person to discomfort, it is your job to figure out how to deal with that while interacting with the public. It is not everyone else’s job to anticipate and accommodate your sensitivity.

But also, you shouldn’t want that anyway.

Life is Discomfort

To live in the world is to be confronted with discomfort. To avoid all discomfort at the expense of genuine experiences and surprise (which is the heart of art) and is to survive at the expense of living. If you never experience discomfort, you are living in an emotional bubble. It may be clean, but you aren’t living life.

Go the other way.

Swim in discomfort. Immerse yourself in it. Study it. Learn from it. Grow from it. Don’t ever, ever hide from it. Don’t deprive yourself of the most valuable parts of being alive.

Why We Kink

And to make this all relevant to this website: This is why we do kink.

Kink is our opportunity to experience discomfort in a safe and controlled environment. We can feel uncomfortable without being in danger.

This isn’t unique to kink. This is the same reason people like haunted houses and roller coasters and sad movies and stunt shows.

But in kink, we can make those experiences more personal and experience a greater range of emotions and flavors of discomfort. We can actually tailor-make our uncomfortable experiences and guide our own growth.

It’s not the only thing that makes kink valuable, but I believe it’s one of the most important elements and many of the people doing it don’t even realize that’s what they’re doing as they “push their limits”.

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