Robin and I recently spent some time discussing comfort zones- for me, particularly, the nuanced difference between “comfort zone” and “gut instinct.” The distinction between the two, I think, is difficult to ascertain sometimes because stepping outside of our comfort zones and having a gut feeling about something can often feel much the same.
But let’s back up and talk about what comfort zones are. At the most basic level, our comfort zone is where we feel the most safe. We know our surroundings, we know the people we are engaging with, the know the circumstances, and we don’t feel threatened in any capacity. Our sense of safety, of self, of ideology, all of these things lay within our comfort zones.
And that’s a great place to be! It’s good to feel calm and self-assured and safe. I think we all need a respite from hard emotional, psychological, and spiritual work sometimes. The problem with comfort zones, though, is that staying within them too long often leads to stagnation.
My mother is fond of reminding me that “we don’t change until it hurts bad enough.” Growth, change, they all come from tension, from butting up against something we thought we believed and finding our beliefs questioned. And in order to do that, we have to be outside of our comfort zones.
I spend a lot of time in therapy, parsing out my unusual comfort zones. I am, for example, perfectly comfortable walking around naked in (designated) public spaces, having sex in public, tying people up, getting tied up, talking about sex hypothetically,
saying, “I love you,” and so forth. But it feels immensely outsides my comfort zone- that is, it makes me very uncomfortable and, in some ways, vulnerable to the point of feeling unsafe- to instigate sex with a partner, or identify and communicate something that I want. I once noted in my journal, “Why is it easier to say, ‘I love you,’ than it is to say, ‘I want to fuck you’?”
Because comfort is subjective, based on each of our personal and interpersonal experiences. Comfort zones are the boundaries drawn as a result of trauma and struggle, as well as positive experiences. But perhaps that’s a key point in all of this- comfort zones are based on boundaries, a separation of safe and not-safe, a delineation between what reinforces and supports our beliefs and what challenges them.
It’s the foundation of how we draw boundaries in general: boundaries with one another, boundaries with ourselves. Which is where we have to talk about the nuances between comfort zones and gut instinct. Because where pushing outside of comfort zones can be a really positive thing and lead to self-introspection and change, gut instinct is often there to help keep us safe. It’s the feeling that something is off, something isn’t quite right. And that feeling is important, too; that’s often what happens when our bodies pick up on subtle cues that we aren’t consciously aware of. And that edge, that discomfort, that heightened awareness when our gut instincts kick in… often feels much the same as stepping outside of our comfort zones.
The difference is, of course, that one is a perceived lack of safety, whereas the other might be alerting us to something legitimately dangerous. It’s important that we press outside our comfort zones for growth and change, but it’s also important that we listen to our gut instincts. So how do we know, in moments of discomfort, which is which?
For me, especially because my understanding of comfort is fairly warped, I often have to play, “What’s the worst that could happen?” in my mind to remind myself that there is no actual danger in being outside my comfort zone. So, for example, when I am in a position where I want to instigate sex with a partner, and I get that terrified feeling that comes along with that desire, I have to remind myself that the worst that can happen is that my partner isn’t interested and declines. And then I remind myself that that’s not even a bad outcome because I feel so grateful to be with people who trust me enough to not only state their desires, but to state their lack of desire. Someone saying “no” helps me trust that they really mean “yes” when they say yes. There is no actual danger here; only growth and positive communication.
On the other hand, if I’m walking down the street and I start to feel uncomfortable, I do the same thing. I think about what the possible outcomes are. I think about “what area” I’m in, and whether the reactions I’m having are coming from a place of internalized racism (is this a predominantly black part area, and how is that influencing my sense of safety?) I think about the experiences I’ve been having (have I seen anyone? How have those interactions been?) and use as much information as I can to decide whether I’m just… a white person outside of my comfort zone (which I can use as an opportunity for growth and change and tackling my own internalized racism) or am I someone that people are interacting with in a violent or unwelcome sexual way where I should be concerned about my own safety?
I appreciate, for example, that this blog and these discussions often fall outside of people’s comfort zones. We butt up against the status quo, the “accepted” mainstream doctrine for Christianity and Christian belief in openly- deliberately- discussing sexuality and the miracle of our bodies with respect to our faith practices. But there is no danger here. There is thought, hopefully well-articulated for the most part, and discussion, and lived experience. There are people on the other end of these words that don’t have the answers, but want to push ourselves outside the spiritual comfort zone to find new ways of connecting with and understanding ourselves, one another, and the holy. It may be discomforting. It may make us angry, or scared, or uncertain, or all of the things that happen when we decide to question deeply held beliefs.
But at the end of all of this, there is God, smiling as we struggle with complexities of what it means to be human and seek to worship as authentically as we know how. There is a quote that comes to mind from Thomas Merton’s prayer, “Thoughts in Solitude,” though I first heard it paraphrased from a TV show: “I don’t know how to please you, Lord, but I think the fact that I want to please you pleases you.”
I believe that God is pleased when we push ourselves outside our comfort zones, seeking to grow and change and understand God, ourselves, the world, and each other better. Our comfort zones provide a good respite from the daily struggles of the world, a reprieve when we are exhausted, but we cannot live there all the time, for it a place of quiet rest, and not necessarily a place of vibrant growth.
“I would like to do that with (or for or even to) you, but it’s not in my comfort zone.” Over the years of my life, I have said this a few times, probably more than I remember. It also has been said to me.
What is a “comfort zone?” One definition I found says, “a place or situation where one feels safe or at ease and without stress.” Obviously, there can be locations which always, or at least generally, feel like comfort zones—home, I hope, although I know that is not the case for too many—but there also can be specific episodes or situations in other places that can feel like they are within our comfort zone. Sometimes, we even find new zones.
It is tempting, and for me often the case, to stay in traditional (for me) comfort zones and to live only in places and situations that are clearly comfortable, and to avoid those that don’t feel that way. As a well-privileged white cis gender male with extensive education and a middle class background, it is not difficult to live only in my social comfort zone. However, there are times when I, we, must act beyond our comfort zones.
My comfort zone does not include stepping into the midst of an argument between two or more people that is turning ugly and seems to be heading toward violence. But I might have to do it anyway, if I want no further violence, bloodshed or irreversible outcomes. Of course, this depends on my investment in the people (and possibly institutions) involved, and potentially my desire for safety for all of us, including me.
Right now, I feel myself being more of an agitator than is my usual comfortable practice—I like to think of it as being one of Saint Bayard Rustin’s “angelic troublemakers”—on social media sites linked to my faith community, Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC). The details don’t matter here, but what is causing me to act up more than normal is a desire to resist and overcome the debilitating and oppressive power of white supremacy in our history and our present that has been and is infecting policies and practices of our leadership and others.
Doing this feels outside my comfort zone, and yet it also feels right. But sometimes, I feel skittish. I recently reposted an important notice from a leader who was resigning her posts because as an African American woman she no longer feels recognized and heard. I began that post with the words, “This will probably get me in trouble……” Fortunately, I was called on those words, and edited them out, realizing they were only designed to shield me from the discomfort and/or anger of others.
Here is irony: My search for a definition of “comfort zone” lead me a link to the “Comfort Zone,” a novelty and party store that I know, from visits, carries a large array of sex toys, “adult” videos, sexy clothing (especially for women). I have gone there to purchase lube and cock rings. It would not be comfortable for many (probably most) people to visit this store (ironically, I only learned about it because it is next door to our veterinarian’s clinic).
But of course, this blog, Sex Bodies Spirit, is also outside the comfort zone of many people. I started it, joined a little later by Malachi (praise God!) and we then added a monthly online teaching, through Metropolitan Community Churches, but it certainly did not draw much interest from clergy and members (we had, and have a few fans from MCC). The monthly teaching no longer exists.
I think that is a loss for the church, but you can’t easily get people to leave their comfort zones. Indeed, church communities are notoriously skittish about talking about sex. Not doing sex, just talking about it, openly, positively, maturely—as if it were a key part of being human (which, of course, it is).
As regular readers of this space know, I like being naked. I would like to be naked more of the time than I am (at this time of year our house is too chilly). And I wish there were beaches and other venues in the near vicinity where I could be naked when I want.
But, as Malachi and I talked about the topic of “comfort zones” 10 days ago, I realized that I had some anxiety about being one of two presenters and discussion facilitators in an online venue where the next topic is nudity. Titled “Naked and Unashamed,” Rev. Dr. Frank Dunn and I will discuss various spiritual aspects of nudity. We will even be nude, and encourage others to do the same if that is within their comfort zones. [This is through Jonathan’s Circle, a group of men, started by Frank some years ago, who participate in various ways to learn more about sexuality and spirituality and their connections.]
I have been trying to discern the nature of my anxiety. I can’t believe it is being naked on camera. I have posed naked in front of dozens of people, ridden my bike naked through the streets of Philadelphia with a thousand other naked people in front of many times that number of clothed Philadelphians, and posted full-frontal nude pictures of myself on my personal blog, “The Naked Theologian.” As the name of that blog says, I am quite willing to be identified with nakedness, and to be seen naked. I even read a poem at a public reading in my town about my fantasy of dancing naked in the town square, how others joined in, and we decided to make it an annual event (no one commented or asked me about it afterwards).
So what is going on? What part of me is being challenged?
I have puzzled about this, and have concluded that for some reason I do not fully understand this particular naked adventure is making my commitment to nudism more real than it has been. Indeed, as soon as I wrote that sentence, I decided to crank up the heat in my study and take all my clothes off.
It certainly feels good to do that, and it helps me understand that, at least in some ways, I am more comfortable naked than clothed. Don’t get me wrong, clothes matter to me (I enjoy color and my own ideas of my style), but if I could, I would live naked all the time.
I have found a new comfort zone.
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What are your comfort zones? Do you ever venture beyond one or more of them? If so, under what circumstances? If not, why not? How in touch are you with your various comfort zones? Please share your thoughts, your heart, on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.
Mark Your Calendar! April 11, right here, the next installment of Sex, Bodies, Spirit.