Saturday, September 10, 2016

Uncomfortable

YESTERDAY

Sitting on the hard plastic seat was like sitting on concrete. A cold piece of cement wedged into my crotch. Why didn’t they make bikes more comfortable?

“Hey, Steve! You coming?”

I grimaced, but managed to smile as I jerked the handle bars straight. My client, Jerry, wheeled his mountain bike around like he’d been doing it forever.

“You’re slow!” he said.

“I’m coming.”

The group home had a few bikes that the clients were allowed to use, so long as they were accompanied by staff. Today, I was the lucky staff member. I cursed under my breath and began to pedal. It wasn’t even like spin class, and I’d hated spin class. Only the instructor had made it palatable.

The road tilted, and I overcompensated by swinging my handle bars to the right. I missed a parked old Civic by inches.

“Let’s go, Steve!”

I growled and followed my client down one of the back streets. Why was it so hard to pedal? Had I grabbed the only dysfunctional bike the group home owned? Why did people think this was a good idea?

There’d been a time when biking was a lot of fun. Until I’d bought a car. Cars were fun. They had padded seats. They were less complicated. And I never worried about driving into a parked vehicle.

I knew the refrain about riding a bike, about how it got easier and how once you learned how to do it you never forgot.

I could only snort. Yeah. I could do it. But it didn’t make it any less uncomfortable.

“Hurry up, Steve!”

I didn’t respond. My legs were already burning.


SHELTER

“Are you a cop?”

Three black teenagers stood loosely around a weathered table. We were standing outside. The sun was hot. They wore loose fitting clothes, and the one addressing me had a broad smile on his face.

“I’m sorry, what?” I said, struggling with his thick accent.

The teenager squared his shoulders and imitated a robot. “You a cop? You walk stiff. You have beard. Muscular.”

I shook my head. Smiled. “Nope. Not a cop. Youthworker.”

I was at a homeless shelter for young people. I’d been there for a week. I was the only white face in the entire place, staff included. It held forty five young people between the ages of sixteen and twenty four, and while I liked working there and enjoyed getting to know the kids, it was disconcerting to feel so pale.

I’d written often about privilege, talked about what it meant to be white and male and straight and all the advantages it held in our culture, but it was my first experience being such a distinct minority, if only for a short time.

“My name is Stephen,” I said, extending my hand.

He took it, laughed again, and introduced me to his friends. The shelter’s yard was dingy. A few picnic tables. Sparse brown grass. A rusted fence. Staff had laid out supper on a few tables. Huge silver tins with aluminum foil folded back over each one.

It’s impossible to imagine – with any idea about what it’s really like – to be a minority when you’ve never experienced it. I tasted it for a week, barely, in a work environment where I still held power and could leave to a more “regular environment.” So in a way it hardly counts. But it still gave me a glimpse of the challenges these youths faced, of the challenges that people of different cultures faced when they dared leave their country. I’d seen it before. Seen what happened when minorities spoke up and what it meant for them. What it cost them.

But it was a reminder.

And it was uncomfortable.


HOME

Cars stacked in a traffic jam below my balcony. Rush hour. I shook my head, grateful my work ended early. Sitting in a line of cars was stressful. Especially in a place like Toronto, where movement was tied to both efficiency and success. Hell, all you had to do was listen. You could hear it in the massive steel buildings that scraped the sky and the hundreds of thousands of people who packed the subway, their eyes empty and fully charged. If you weren’t getting ahead, if you weren’t full bore for whatever was next, you either lacked ambition or were falling behind.

And nothing was worse than falling behind.

My last month had felt that way. I’d worked nearly to the point of burnout. My place was a mess. I was still living in boxes. I was struggling to keep up with the bills and laundry and other basic tasks. I was grateful for the work, but it had come at a cost. I was still adjusting. Still learning to push the constant noise of the city to the side.

Still uncomfortable.


COMFORT

“Comfort” means different things to different people in different cultures, but we are all searching for it. Something to do with finding equilibrium about our circumstances. With reduced stress. Something more than just coping. It was a place that I, too, was anxious to find. It’d been a while since I’d experienced it.

We all feel that pull away from discomfort. I’m fine at work, when I’m with my kids, and when I can see the difference I’m making in their life. Or when I’m at the gym. Or when I'm at home, where I can call a friend and toss back a beer and relax. I can, and do, purposely avoid things that make me uncomfortable. I’m human. We’re all wired this way.

And yet, for all that the past couple of months hadn’t been "fun," they'd been rewarding. I’d learned new skills, gained confidence in a way I hadn’t imagined, found myself growing stronger as I faced each challenge – even if the challenge was as mundane as working sixteen of seventeen days without breaking down. I’d dealt with the stress, the discomfort, and the exhaustion. Dealt with it and surpassed my limitations.

That never would have happened if I hadn’t been pushed out of my comfort zone.

One of the great lies of society is that we should measure the status of our life by how we feel. If we “feel” good, which we often translate to ‘safe’ and ‘secure’ and ‘comfortable,’ than things are going well. This is true in everything from relationships to living conditions to our work.

And it is a lie.

Progress – spiritual, mental and physical progress – is never achieved when we are fully at ease. Though we try to avoid these situations, humanity is at its best when it is pushed and stretched and forced into new places.

For all my frustration about the summer, I’d been forced to go farther than I could remember, and my life had changed dramatically.

I wasn’t comfortable. I hadn’t liked it.

But I was better for it.


TODAY

I swiveled my handlebars around and coasted down the street, enjoying the cool breeze on my face. Heat swelled from the asphalt.

“Hey, Jerry? You coming?”

“Yeah!” he said, flashing me a grin as he peddled to keep up.

We passed a number of old houses that looked like they’d been around since the Second World War. One of them looked like it had been burned recently, with a blackened porch and smashed windows. It stood in contrast with the one beside it. A blue Honda Civic glistened in the driveway. Orange and red flowers dotted the porch.  

I twisted past a huge pothole. “So where do you want to go today?”

“Let’s go to the beach.”

 “Are you sure?” I asked him. “There’s a big hill to get there.”

“No problem. I can do it. I’ve done it before.”

I laughed. “Yes. Yes, you have.”