When I was growing up, the most repeated phrase I heard from my parents was an exasperated “Why can’t you just be OK with what you have?” It was usually following some highly questionable plan I made to stir up trouble for myself and others around me.

Example: When I was eight years old, I was grounded for life for going AWOL from my elementary school in Egypt. After months of careful scheming and reckless uprooting of decorative plants, I built a step ladder out of flowerpots behind the supply building at my school, hauled myself over the eight-foot wall that surrounded the campus and climbed down a tree into the frenzied traffic of downtown Cairo. In my backpack, I had a crayon-drawn map of my wildly inaccurate perception of a direct route back to my apartment building, a book of matches I smuggled out of a restaurant and a piece of foil-wrapped cheese. I was flying the damn coop. I was a rebel with a cause — we had been studying the same pharaoh in Egyptian culture class for three weeks, and I was really bored.

Today, 14 years older and probably two-and-a-half years wiser — and truly sorry for the previously stated incident — I would tell my mother that although I hadn’t quite figured out how to appropriately express it, I was never “just OK” with what I had because I didn’t want to value being comfortable.

I still don’t.

Not valuing being comfortable means becoming overly and personally familiar with the reality that everybody — but seemingly most often, you — will make mistakes all the time; and in turn, it means learning how to appropriately recognize those mistakes.

When you hurt someone you love, you overcome your pride and apologize for your actions. When something is racist, sexist or prejudiced in any way, you act — not just speak — to stop it. When you are called out for a problem, you listen, you learn and you fix your mistakes. When you trip on the sidewalk and are unable to get up due to the fact that your overloaded backpack combined with the force of gravity has turned you into some kind of freakish turtle on its shell, you know that your friends laughing hysterically is the universally accepted response.

Not valuing being comfortable means not trying to change or dilute who you are and where you come from, in all of its flawed glory, and no matter how far off the “ideal” it is. It means that due to my Eastern European roots, my face is genetically predisposed to frighten most youngsters into eating their beets and my body will undoubtedly assume the natural curves of a potato eventually. Accepting this means recognizing that I will never age with the grace, beauty or figure of Beyonce, but it also means being thankful for the fact that at least my family will not suffer from a beet deficiency. Accepting who you are also implies that as a human you will probably never master the power of flight or the art of echolocation — two very uncomfortable revelations in an entirely different sense that I once had.

Not valuing being comfortable means being able and willing to address issues that are inherently uncomfortable if approached with the level of seriousness that valuable conversations demand. Not valuing being comfortable means forcing yourself to constantly reassess and learn from topics that are undeniable parts of the human experience and, yet, are still considered “dirty words” in polite society — sexuality, race, gender, emotions, growing up, death, love and hate.

It means learning to recognize your privilege as it applies and knowing when your voice is valuable and when to listen — without waiting for your turn to speak — when the discussion is about experiences you could never possibly claim as your own. It’s about learning to move through your own prejudices in a way that does not make the conversation about you, or place the burden of your education on others, or confuse appropriation with empathy. It’s about recognizing that becoming a better friend, a better ally, a better anything of importance is a process that literally no one else can tell you how to best navigate, however difficult and inconvenient that truth may be.

Not valuing being comfortable isn’t synonymous with not being happy with what you already have; it means only that you are not content to be complacent with what already exists. Being grateful for something and demanding its improvement are not mutually exclusive activities, whether that something is your community, yourself or your favorite TV show. Nothing I’ve loved has ever gotten a free pass; if anything, the only things worth being critical of are the things that truly matter.

The thing about being comfortable is that it is a really easy thing to do. I can’t truly say that I don’t value being comfortable at all. There is a certain safety in knowing the spaces and places and people with whom you fit in effortlessly and these places and people are legitimate and important. But never making the choice to be uncomfortable is accepting complacency. It’s accepting a fate that is unending and resolute. We do the same things, have the same conversations, make the same mistakes and can only expect a different outcome by way of some kind of divine intervention or statistical elimination. Without being uncomfortable, nothing changes.

Julia Zarina can be reached at jumilton@umich.edu.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.