We should be comfortable feeling uncomfortable

In “Everyday Empathy” (Inc., March 2024, page 16), a young entrepreneur named Michael Tennant is highlighted. He is the founder of Curiosity Labs and author of The Power of Empathy: A Thirty-Day Path to Personal Growth and Social Change (2023). Tennant appears to be the sort of person our fractured and angry society desperately needs in the world of business. The focus of the article in Inc., naturally, is geared towards people in business, but the principles in it have a far broader applicability. Here’s the excerpt from the article that caught my eye:

Don’t hide from conflict within your team.
Avoiding conflict, Tennant says, is “sort of operating within a blunted spectrum of human interaction.” Healthy relationships have elasticity: You can disagree but still recover. It’s through disagreement, and challenging underlying assumptions, that people develop an understanding of one another’s point of view—and that leads to innovative thinking, adds Tennant.
Get comfortable feeling uncomfortable.
“Engaging in conflict isn’t easy. It can feel safer for a person to stick to their beliefs,” Tennant says. But working through disagreements helps leaders expand their perspective, which benefits the way they interact with their employees. “it’s going to help you be more persuasive,” says Tennant. “You’re going to retain them, you’re going to get more out of them.”

In Tennant’s ideas I hear an echo of the teaching of Christ and his apostles. They told the followers of Jesus to expect discomfort, not comfort. Comfort, when it comes, is a grace of God we do not deserve. We should be grateful for it, of course, enjoy it, but we must never begin to expect it as if we are due it. We aren’t. It’s a fallen world. And our calling in this broken world is not to be comfortable, but to be like Christ. He knew what it was like to suffer and we are to follow in his steps.

            I’ve told you all this so that trusting me, you will be unshakable and assured, deeply at peace. In this godless world you will continue to experience difficulties. But take heart! I’ve conquered the world. (John 16:33; The Message).

            Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way. (James 1:2-4, The Message).

            So we’re not giving up. How could we! Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without his unfolding grace. These hard times are small potatoes compared to the coming good times, the lavish celebration prepared for us. There’s far more here than meets the eye. The things we see now are here today, gone tomorrow. But the things we can’t see now will last forever.(2 Corinthians 4:16-18, The Message).

            What a God we have! And how fortunate we are to have him, this Father of our Master Jesus! Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we’ve been given a brand-new life and have everything to live for, including a future in heaven—and the future starts now! God is keeping careful watch over us and the future. The Day is coming when you’ll have it all—life healed and whole.
            I know how great this makes you feel, even though you have to put up with every kind of aggravation in the meantime. Pure gold put in the fire comes out of it proved pure; genuine faith put through this suffering comes out proved genuine. When Jesus wraps this all up, it’s your faith, not your gold, that God will have on display as evidence of his victory. (1 Peter 1:3-7; The Message).

It’s especially appropriate today in America to note that one way he and the apostles suffered was through a lack of political freedom. Yet, this did not cause them to be less faithful and through it all God used them to bring redemption and turn the world upside down. They did not wait for Rome to be overthrown or try to overthrow it before joyously living out the truth of Jesus. Suffering a lack of political freedom was part of their calling. The question we need to face is, are we willing to remain joyously faithful and unafraid if it turns out to be part of our calling as well?

In the May 18, 2024, prayer letter of Southborough L’Abri, Ben Keyes reflected on a talk that was given at the annual L’Abri Workers Meeting in Switzerland.

            One of the lectures was given by Richard Bradford on the topic of ‘safety-ism.’ Drawing in part on Jonathan Haidt’s excellent book The Coddling of the American Mind, Richard explained how many people in Western culture have come to idolize safety—notably in the realm of language and ideas. To feel safe and to ensure that others feel safe, has become an ultimate virtue, while to say anything that causes feelings of unsafety is an ultimate vice. Increasingly, western people rely on their emotions to define what is real, and as a result, words are often judged solely on the emotional impact they have on listeners, without any consideration of the speaker’s intended meaning or motivations. For many people, the distinction between discomfort and danger has been blurred. Conversations that, twenty years ago, might have been considered difficult yet productive, are now considered potentially damaging to a person’s mental health. It has always been challenging to converse with people with whom we strongly disagree, but exposure of this kind is now something from which our institutions—schools, universities and work-places—are expected to protect us.
            The results of safety-ism have not been good for individuals. In a time when young Americans have never been ‘safer,’ anxiety, depression and suicide are on the rise. Young people who are growing up with heightened sensitivities tend to be unprepared for the tensions and difficulties of ordinary life in the real world. Apparently, to make feelings of safety our ultimate goal is not a safe thing to do.
            Safety-ism has also had damaging social effects by contributing to the breakdown of real conversation across differences. This has intensified the polarization that is already present in American society. The breakdown happens when people are too afraid to say what they really think—for fear of causing offense or being called out and publicly shamed. The natural response is to either keep quiet, or to interact only with people who share our particular perspective. If our goal was to avoid learning anything, it would be hard to imagine a better strategy! But the breakdown of real conversation also happens when people overreact to the perceived restrictions and use language in order to cause damage. In these contexts, basic spite is often passed off as honesty and ‘telling it like it is.’ Social media platforms exacerbate the problem by creating moral distance between our harsh words and the real-life impact they have on others. When we vent our frustrations online, there are no face-to-face consequences for our lack of love. In either case—whether it is by fearful silence or by intentional alienation of others—real conversations between diverse groups of people come to a halt and society becomes more fractured.

A man attending a workshop I led said his son had served in Afghanistan and returned home safely. Their church welcomed him with a potluck, and there was no end to the people who wanted to talk. A few months later the young man committed suicide. The church gathered for the funeral, but afterwards the parents heard nothing but silence, and no one dropped by. “I don’t blame them,” the father said, “They didn’t know what to say and were uncomfortable.”

True. I would have struggled with the identical problem. But shouldn’t the people of God, trusting God’s Spirit, have gone to the parents and said, “I’m so sorry, but I don’t know how to be your friend. What can I do? What should I not do? If you tell me to go away, that’s fine—no hard feelings. But I want to be a friend if I can, but don’t know how.”

To do that means rejecting safety-ism and embracing discomfort.

I was in a conversation at church recently when someone commented they were glad they didn’t know the political leanings of their fellow congregants. I understand that. Completely. With so many holding to radically different political ideologies which identify political opponents as “enemies” it can feel safer to simply ignore that aspect of life in our Christian community. But should we?

We live in a deeply fragmented society where political opponents rarely are able to converse in civility. The followers of Jesus are called to be agents of reconciliation, and in the safety (the true safety) of being the family of God we should be able to embrace discomfort and learn how to live and love and communicate and differ across political differences.

Wouldn’t it be better to learn to sit down and listen to one another, ask questions, and define the deep difference between us? To learn to communicate in love and respect? And then take that skill into our fragmented world as a demonstration of healing and reconciliation? The church is to be a safe place, not to overlook and ignore the difficulties of living in a fallen world, but to provide safe space to tackle those uncomfortable difficulties and find a path towards healing.

It’s one thing to distance socially during a pandemic; it’s quite another to social distance because we are fearful of the discomfort of learning to listen and care in the midst of hard things or strong disagreement.

Isn’t this something we need to intentionally learn in the safety of Christ’s church? A place to begin might be with Learning to Disagree: The Surprising Path to Navigating Differences with Empathy and Respect (Zondervan; April 2, 2024) by John Inazu (Author), Tish Harrison Warren (Foreword).

When can we start?

Photo credit: Photo by Joshua Miranda. (https://www.pexels.com/photo/social-distancing-on-wooden-table-3988876/)