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New Year 2017: Lean into Discomfort

When I was a kid, I was afraid of the dark. Even protected by my trusty blankie and the light emitting from my Raggedy Ann bedside lamp, I frequently woke up in a dither about some terrifying thing that had appeared in my dreams.

My bedroom was an addition to the house, which made it farther away from my parents’ bedroom. After bad dreams, I’d stand fearfully at the doorway, bare toes tensely resting on the brown carpeted side of my bedroom entryway. I’d weigh how frightened I was against the “risk” of running through the darkened hallway, past the basement and bathroom doors to the hallway light, which was clear on the other side. That 20-foot walk might as well have been a mile to my tiny 6-year-old legs.

Needless to say, many, many times that darkened hallway prevented me from getting past my bedroom doorway. I chose instead to ride out the “fearful” nights with my blankie and lamp.

This may seem like an awful and strange way to grow up in those early elementary years, but I think those scary dreams and the darkened hallway taught me something: how to lean into discomfort and fear.

This lesson feels eerily relevant as we step over the threshold into 2017. As many have noted in frustrated words and an endless supply of social media memes, 2016 has been rough. Continued shootings and other violence here and abroad, a nasty and divisive election cycle that has left almost everyone angry, frightened and confused and a last-minute slew of beloved celebrity deaths has forced many of us to hide under the blanket with a nightlight.

As much as I wish it could, simply hiding will not help.

In her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor illustrates beautifully the real backdrop to  Jesus’ birth. “Like most Westerners, I always thought of the stable in Bethlehem as a wooden lean-to filled with straw, at least until I went to the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank. There I learned that caves made the best stables in Jesus’ day—no wind whistling through the boards, no predators sneaking up on you from behind. The traditional place of Jesus’ birth is not in the Church of the Nativity but under it, in a small cave under the altar.”

Jesus was born, buried and resurrected in caves. Great things happen in darkness.

This basic principle — that darkness, fear and discomfort can birth extraordinary things — is not limited to the Christian story. Brown Taylor points out that the first few verses of the Qur’an were spoken by the angel Gabriel to Muhammed in a cave. Guatama Buddha meditated regularly in them, which followers in India, China and Tibet have now done for centuries. Every great story of hope and promise begins with darkness, even death, and ends with life, love and meaning stubbornly bursting forth.

This is why I could have hope in 2016 and why I still have hope today on the dawn of 2017. If darkness, discomfort and fear help us birth wonderful things, then the year ahead will truly be remarkable. But not if we choose to avoid the discomfort, only if we lean into it.

I resolve to take away from the lessons of my childhood, ancient stories and life experience to lean into the discomfort of these divisive times. That may mean that I will seem less “nice” than I have in the past. You will hear more assertive speech from me in this blog, on social media or in person. If I hear someone say something offensive or uncomfortable, I may just engage them with a question or even a respectful, but contrary opinion of my own, rather than go back and complain in the safety of like-minded friends.

Krista Tippett in an On Being blog post, revisited some of the wisdom shared by Brené Brown, author and social work researcher from the University of Houston, who has said: “… hope is not an emotion. Hope is a cognitive, behavioral process that we learn when we experience adversity, when we have relationships that are trustworthy, when people have faith in our ability to get out of a jam.”

As I became an older child, my struggle with darkness eventually gave way to a different relationship with nighttime. When I was 11 or so, I noticed that I was having trouble getting to sleep. For a few weeks, I didn’t understand why; then, one night, I realized what it was. I reached for the switch on the Raggedy Ann lamp and turned it off. This time the light was preventing me from sleeping. I needed more darkness.

Maybe we all need a little more darkness to force us out of our comfort zone at this point in history. If struggle gives birth to hope, then finding our way out of this historical and cultural morass will result in an abundance of faith in ourselves, our culture and our world. I invite you, regardless of your place on the political spectrum, your faith history or your personal or professional background or expertise to join in this movement to lean into, rather than avoid, uncomfortable and difficult conversations and situations.

Come with me on this journey of hope.

One Comment

  1. Nicole – I love this post. And remember similar nights in my childhood. I was scared one night and worried that my baby sister might be scared too. So at the age of 6 I went down the hall and pulled my baby sister out of her crib. She was heavy but I got her back to my room and up onto my high, old fashioned bed. I snuggled in next to her and relaxed with a huge sigh. Just as I was on the threshold of sleep I woke with a start. What if she fell out of bed? I reluctantly carried her back to her room, lowered her as far as I could into her crib, and dropped her back into her bed. (Amazingly she slept through all this.). I went to bed less scared because, although I was still alone in the dark, I knew my sister was safe.

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