You Were Made for Greatness, Not Comfort

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The world offers you comfort. But you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.

Pope Benedict XVI

In 1979, I won the Boston Marathon. I was 10 years old. Nevermind the fact that the race was held in Boston, Indiana and totaled just over 600 yards. In that moment, jockeying among those 75 other fourth and fifth graders, I experienced the intense pain of exertion over an (somewhat) extended period of time and the thrill of victory. In a box somewhere, my mom still has the photo that appeared on the front page of the Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telagram. My 15 seconds of fame had come, and gone.

Before that moment, it would never have occurred to me that one might deliberately place themselves in an extended period of discomfort for some payoff at a future moment in time. My world was one of pleasing myself when I could, taking short-term action where possible for positive praise, or enduring the forced discomforts of chores, being nice to siblings, or punishments for misbehavior. That day, I learned the power of self-sacrifice to serious discomfort in return for something big enough to actually make it worth while. I tasted greatness on the other side of that discomfort.

Wrestling With the World

As we grow from childhood to adolescence and move on to adulthood, we’re in a persistent wrestling match with the world around us as we fight to get or do what we want. We learn the slow and difficult lessons of discipline and then self-discipline as we bump up against forces greater than ourselves and adjust accordingly. We are formed and forged through the ongoing tension among these forces. Along the way, we learn where we need to apply effort, where we can coast a bit, and where the boundaries lie.

The process of learning is often surprising, frequently alternating rapidly between the painful and the joyful as we push, prod, fall, and get back up in our own becoming. Through all of it, we come to long for the moments of comfort. Those places where we can rest free of the tension of growth amid the satisfaction of arrival. Alas, we never stay long in our stasis oasis as the world has other plans for us. We begin to see a correlation between the forces acting upon us, our feelings of comfort, and our need to meet the tension with effort, enduring periods of pain, in order to return to that place where we can relax once again.

Time goes on and we start to recognize the cycle of comfort/discomfort and the seeds of discontent take root. We begin to look for ways to avoid the struggle or pain, and focus on trying to live in the oasis. We still get knocked out of it from time to time but that’s often not our fault: we blame it on other people, bad luck, or Acts of God. Sometimes, we begin to resent it and can become consumed with avoiding it. As we get older, we work harder and harder to stay out of the zone of discomfort, tension, or resistance. Put another way, we try less and less, as trying often begets tension.

The Myth of Arrival

At some point, we arrive. Or at least we think we should have arrived. Perhaps we don’t live paycheck to paycheck any more. Maybe we’re done having children. We might have the dream job or the right degree or the right spouse or the right house or car or boat. Maybe we’re debt-free or have 3% body-fat or vacation five times a year. Some of us may have won a Superbowl or an Indianapolis 500 or the Masters. Ahh, finally, we’ve arrived and the oasis is so amazingly comfortable.

But something strange happens in the oasis. We become restless. Dissatisfied. The food becomes less flavorful. The trophies gather dust. People stop calling for interviews, or lunches, or anything. That perfect spouse begins to age. That 3% body-fat tips to, gasp, 12%! The car gets some rust, we have to replace the propeller on the boat, or we find that those children want to go live their own lives – maybe without our input. We start to realize that the oasis was a mirage and we’ve still got work to do for other arrivals that seem to be calling to us.

The big problem with comfort is that we only get there by living in discomfort over extended periods of time. The self-discipline, the sweat, the exertion, the pain, and the sacrifice are all required to get anywhere meaningful. And when we get there, we are so very happy to let them go. Somehow, someway, we became convinced that if we pay our dues early in life we’ll reach some point where we can just coast. When we finally arrive, we find that there is only so much earthly heaven we can endure, and we find ourselves uncomfortable in our comfort. The golf, the seashells, the cars, the poolside daiquiris, and the endless comforts were all mirages masquerading as dreams and destinations.

Comfort Makes Us Soft

Comfort makes us soft. It sates our hunger. It seduces us into thinking we don’t have to struggle, suffer, fight, learn, grow, or reach anymore. We call them trappings because they lull us into the trap of laziness. Too much time here and we stop putting effort into health, relationships, thinking, praying, or looking forward to anything other than the next comfort. After living here for a while, we grow to expect comfort, ease, and smooth seas. Suddenly, we find our resilience, fortitude, perseverance, and courage dulled – blunted like an old rusty sword. No longer useful in battle.

And by the way, comfort isn’t just luxury. We get comfortable in all sorts of places. Sometimes comfort masquerades as zero responsibility and low expectations. We might find comfort in poverty which could take the form of material possessions, health, or spirit. The stasis oasis doesn’t have to be a mansion, executive position, or big degree – it can just as easily appear in the squalor of our own bad choices. Even lying at the bottom of our failures can become its own form of comfort; each sad excuse one more layer in that warm blanket of self-justification.

Called to Greatness

We are made for greatness. And, we are called to it. Greatness isn’t an arrival, title, bank account, or any other thing we possess. It is a state of being. Greatness is found, honed, refined, and sustained in the struggle. It is the will to more and the determination to keep going. It is what we give to the world and how we give it. Our greatness appears in who we are and how we live, through the comforts and the discomforts. It is the capacity to love, forgive, and lift. It is also the capacity to endure.

Wrestling with life, we find greatness in the gifts given to us along the journey and how we share them. It is never arriving, yet always working to arrive well. Here, we recognize when we begin to coast, and immediately look for the signs of our next call. Greatness is not about adolescence or retirement, but the ongoing effort through both. Greatness enjoys the comforts in their moment, then busies itself with flexing, stretching, and strengthening all of the faculties so necessary in one arrival, to the objective of the next. Always becoming.

Beware the comforts of your life. They can become Sirens, summoning you like brave Ulysses from your mission home, to come rest awhile amid their sweet call. Delighting you with satisfaction and gratification while you slowly fade, transfixed, unknowingly numbed until the hour is late. Ultimately, you are made for greatness and greatness is not comfortable, for it knows there is more to be done. Much more.

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