In a recent meeting of those leading antiracist work in the church I presently serve, we were asked to reflect on how we “step into discomfort” in our lives. The question has its roots in the recognition that in order to do antiracist work, specifically the part of that work which requires looking at the ways we participate in dominant culture and contribute to its influence, we will necessarily experience discomfort. The discomfort is that which accompanies a clear and unblinking look at our own complicity, how our preference for seeing ourselves as good and our actions as untainted means we do not see all the ways we go awry.
The responses of the group varied, some noting that discomfort caught them in family interactions, others finding discomfort when making difficult decisions that might be met with disapproval, still others experiencing discomfort as they saw, again, elements of unconscious racism in their well-intentioned actions. I could find resonance with all those examples of discomfort, a recognition which added to my discomfort in that moment because it was accompanied by the uncomfortable awareness that I tend to spend a fair amount of energy and effort trying to avoid or minimize discomfort. That I might change my pattern of behavior to instead actually step into discomfort was clearly going to require ongoing commitment from me.
Habits seldom simply cease just because we resolve to make them cease. Every year, we watch New Year’s resolutions quickly get broken, then abandoned, because breaking them seems to mean they are beyond our capacity to change. Following a doctor’s orders to alter lifestyle behaviors in order to be healthier often turns out to be far, far more difficult than we imagined while we were sitting in the doctor’s office and nodding agreement. And given the premium our culture places on being comfortable, even suggesting that we have a “right” to comfort, means that turning to welcome discomfort, to step into it and work with it and allow it to change perspective and behavior, our capacity for being uncomfortable is likely to be small and intensely resistant to efforts to expand it, to make it a desirable part of our experience.
Yet antiracist work will only go so far if avoiding discomfort remains a set part of my responses. I am learning, albeit with baby steps, that I actually can sit in discomfort and not fall apart, that as the discomfort settles I begin to notice myself and my surroundings shifting, almost like those “magic eye” pictures where softening my gaze reveals a very different scene. Discomfort allows me to see so much more. And while what I see is often painful, still the possibility to see more, and then live differently, is too compelling to resist. Discomfort is proving, again and again, worth the effort.