Comfort has become something of a virtue these days. I remember having a minor spat with a roommate one time about coming up with ways to lower our utility bill. We had unexpectedly received a bill about three times our normal summer-time bill, so I suggested we keep the living space warmer by turning up the thermostat. At the time we kept it set on about 69, in the summer, in the South. It felt unnaturally cold. I fully expect to sweat a little in the summer, but that’s beside the point. The point was that we could significantly save on our utility bill by keeping the thermostat on, say, 78. Then the A/C would run much less, and we could cut into that enormous utility bill. I also came up with some crazy schemes like placing ice blocks in front of a small fan in the roommate’s room to help cool off that portion of the living space, but we won’t dwell too long on my more hare-brained schemes.
The roommate’s response was, “I will not sacrifice my comfort. I’m good with saving money, but not when comfort is sacrificed.” To be honest, I was floored, utterly speechless. I mean, there we were, middle class college grads in America. The world had never seen a nation of people surrounded with such luxury. And yet, we weren’t willing to turn the thermostat up a few degrees for the sake of meeting a monthly budget?! It wasn’t like I was suggesting we cross Siberia bare-foot in winter. For once I did the smart thing and bit my tongue. I had nothing to say that wouldn’t have ruined the friendship for life, and this person is still a very close friend. A very good and loving person, in fact. Just one with whom I disagree on issues of comfort.
In the end, it turned out that the central air unit had a fluid leak, which was causing it to run constantly, leading to our high bill. Travesty averted and no need for any sort of scheme involving jugs of ice and electric fans. In the end I felt pretty silly about the whole thing.
But it did make me think. How did we get to this point? Comfort has become such a necessity in our minds that we’re unwilling to make the smallest of sacrifices to our physical comfort for the sake of greater goals. If you look, you can probably trace much of your spending to provisions for your comfort. Comforts, luxuries, entertainments far beyond anything resembling a genuine need. I guess what I’m suggesting is that most of us Americans are horribly spoiled, myself included.
Living a spoiled, pampered lifestyle rarely results in meaningful accomplishments. When true hardships do come, we’re rarely prepared to face them. We don’t develop the skills required to get us through tough times. We spend far too much time idly entertaining ourselves with television rather than learning or actively doing something worthwhile. Our first reaction is to do the easiest and most comfortable thing by paying for everything: food, home repair, environment (remember that thermostat), transportation, hobbies, entertainment. If you take the less easy, less comfortable route, you will find many benefits such as learning new skills, being more comfortable in a wider range of temperatures, and saving money.
Maybe you’re okay with being spoiled, but I’m not. In fact, it disgusts me to think how pampered I am. But laying aside the disgust for now, our insistence on comfort enslaves us to a job for the majority of our adult lives. If that’s what you want, then fine, but it should be a decision you make consciously. I have many comforts simply because everyone else does, not because I deliberately chose them with the big picture in mind. I just chose the default. Almost everyone I know is in the same boat. How many people have you heard say, “If I didn’t need this job, I’d….” or “If only I had the time, but this job…”? If we deliberately sacrificed lower priority comforts, freedom from the workforce would suddenly become much more realistic.
Maybe you don’t like the word “sacrifice,” but you’re still doing it. You’re sacrificing time for comfort. You willingly enslave yourself to a job to pay for that nice, comfy home with the thermostat set to something nice and comfortable. So you’re stuck sacrificing one way or the other. Seems to me it’s worth sacrificing a few comforts for the sake of more meaningful goals. Maybe comfort is your ultimate virtue. If so, keep working to pay for it, by all means.
I wish my wife and I had begun living deliberately earlier in our lives, and therefore making wiser choices about our physical comforts. Both of us are good at handling insignificant hardships. When you spend a lot of time backpacking and fly fishing (and having fun doing it), you get used to not always being comfortable. John Gierach says one of the first things a fly fisherman learns is that “comfort is elusive.” And yet, here we are, spending way too much on stuff essentially meant to make life more comfortable. So, we’ve committed to begin cutting out little luxuries here and there. I’m sure some of them won’t be easy to let go. Lately, we’ve been tackling that thermostat. Wearing warmer clothes rather than setting the heat higher. It’s a small thing, but a start nonetheless.