I am a wimp and a coward. This may be news to some of you (I doubt it), but it’s something I’ve known about myself for a long time. The wimp in me tries to avoid risk whenever possible because risk brings with it the possibility of pain, and I am adamantly opposed to subjecting my body to unnecessary pain. Taking risks also means being willing to accept failure, and the coward in me prefers to stay safely nestled inside my very own comfort zone where failure is still a possibility, but–if I’ve crafted my zone just right–a limited one.
I haven’t always been this way. I used to be fun. I used to know how to HAVE fun. Admittedly, I never reached “life of the party” status (I don’t have enough confidence or wit to be THAT much fun), but at least I was in attendance at the party.
Somewhere along the line I became sensible and boring and old. Having fun stopped being a priority and became instead an unnecessary distraction from all of life’s duties. I had a house to maintain, chores to perform, children to raise, and a good example to set. (Sound familiar?) It was time to grow up.
For many, many years I have defined myself by my roles as a mother and an educator. Don’t get me wrong–I have been quite happy fulfilling the responsibilities of those roles. But with all three sons now out of the house and essentially “grown-ups” themselves, and with retirement looming ever closer (yeah!), now what?
It’s time for me to start taking a few risks again, to start venturing outside of my comfort zone just a little. Sure, I’ve made a few excursions in the past, but most of them were against my will. However, in every case I learned, I grew, and I enjoyed.
My first comfort zone violation came several years ago when my husband, without my knowledge, arranged a trip for me to New York City. Even though it was a place I had always wanted to visit, he knew I would never go without being forced; he also knew my fear of flying for the first time would be outweighed by my dread of wasting money, so he paid for everything in advance. I remember my ragged breathing as I stepped onto the plane, and I remember counting the number of seat rows between mine and the exit door–that way, if I survived the inevitable crash and had to crawl through the smoke-filled cabin, I would know how far to go. I remember being much calmer once the plane was at cruising altitude–until we were approaching New York, and I made the mistake of looking out the window and realized that we were circling over open water (no one had prepared me for that!). I breathed easier once we were back on solid ground, until we walked around Times Square that night and I was surrounded by thousands and thousands (and thousands!) of people. Claustrophobia set in, and I just knew every person walking past recognized me as a wimpy little English teacher from a small town and knew I was an easy target. I braced myself for the mugging that was surely just minutes away (the mugging that never happened). I was also convinced I was going to die in my first cab ride; our driver, along with all the other cab drivers, managed to turn a four-lane street into an eight-lane race track. I was petrified; my traveling companion Sue laughed delightedly and tipped the driver excessively, thanking him for the excitement! The subway ride wasn’t much better; an angry-looking young man in the front seat of our car kept flipping a switchblade in and out, in and out–but somehow I managed to escape the subway unscathed as well.
It took a couple days for me to calm down and to realize that the odds were pretty good that I wouldn’t be killed, mugged, or otherwise violated. Once I accepted this, I began to enjoy the experience. Now I would love to go back to New York, and now I have the confidence to hop on another plane and go anywhere else my desires might take me.
Riding on the back of the Harley has also forced me outside of my comfort zone. It was frightening at first; I wanted to lean away from the curves (which is a very bad idea), and every time my husband exceeded the speed limit, he suffered a quick punch to the kidney (which probably wasn’t a good idea, either). I still don’t ride that often, but I’ve gotten much more comfortable, and I always feel refreshed and revived after we’ve returned safely home. (I also have to admit that I rather enjoy the paradox of English teacher/principal during the week and leather-clad biker chick on the weekend!)
My sons have occasionally coaxed me away from the familiar by introducing me to several varieties of ethnic foods that I would never have tried on my own. Now I love Thai food, and when I finally summoned the courage to try sushi, I enjoyed it as well. They have also escorted me to several places in downtown Kansas City–places that still make me a little leery, even in broad daylight, but I’m starting to trust their instincts, and I know I will feel even safer when I get my Taser and my permit to carry (I’m serious!).
One of my biggest comfort zone violations has been in church where, believe me, there’s a whole lot of huggin’ goin’ on. I’m just not a “hugger” by nature (even my family could attest to that), and in the beginning all those people coming at me with arms open wide made my heart throb and my palms sweat. Over time it has gotten easier, though, and now I find myself actually enjoying being on the receiving end of so much genuine affection (and sometimes I even instigate the hug myself!).
Writing this blog has probably been the only step outside of my comfort zone that I have actually initiated on my own. I have always wanted to be a writer, but I have forever been too busy (and, honestly, too afraid) to start. “Blogging” seemed to be the safest way, but even so I have been besieged by doubts–what if people don’t like what I have to say? What if they don’t even bother reading what I have tried so hard to put into words? Fortunately, any negative thoughts have been kindly silent, and I have been pleasantly surprised and encouraged by the response–and so I write on.
My friend Julie recently sent me a link to a quite humorous story in The Onion (a “news” source known for its satire), in which the writer claimed that millions of Americans die every year while trying to step out of their comfort zones and experience something new. I have no plans or desires to try sky diving or mountain climbing or rattlesnake handling or anything else that might be considered remotely dangerous (again, I don’t like pain), and yet I also don’t want to succumb to the “soul-crushing monotony of habit” to which the article refers.
So to avoid such monotony, I pledge to periodically take baby steps, to tiptoe ever so slightly away from the safe and familiar. Should I try salsa dance lessons or swing? Ballroom may be more my speed, but perhaps I can first find someone who can teach me rhythm. I have always wanted to visit Hawaii and England–but Cabo, I hear you calling. Should I try yoga or tai chi? Maybe both. I would like to write a book, but should it be a novel, a collection of short stories, or an assortment of editorial essays? (I do like voicing my opinion.) Perhaps there a few of you out there who would like to join me on this journey–or maybe you have your own, individualized “comfort zone violations” you need to make?
Decisions, decisions. One thing is for certain; all this talk of “doin’ stuff” has made me tired, and before I commence on this journey a good nap may be just what I need.