Many people like to believe they would have the nerve to walk down the path less traveled, as the American poet Robert Frost writes, but how many of us would take this path if actually given the opportunity?
And what if there was no path, and we had to forge a fresh one through an unknown forest, clearing a way for others to follow? How many people would be brave and happy to do that?
For many people, staying within the safety of their own comfort zone, and the collective comfort zone of their family, group, and the culture / society they are a part of, is the much safer option.
Because, and this is an important point… we don’t just have one comfort zone, we also share in the collective comfort zones of all the groups we belong to, which in turn influence our own comfort zone. In fact, you could say that our individual comfort zone is also a patchwork created from all the collective comfort zones we belong to.
For example, I have my own individual comfort zone, but I also share and am plugged into to my family’s comfort zone, my local community, and my country’s… as well as any other company, or organisation or social group I am a member of. These all possess collective tribal comfort zones, which can influence and control my own behavior… especially if I am not striving to be conscious of my thoughts and actions. The fact that my parents are in their mid-80s means that their comfort zones, which evolved back in the 1930s, have also been woven into my own at some level (i.e. the need for a steady job… don’t take risks etc… and I have been struggling with this for 50 years now).
You can easily prove the truth of this by seeing what happens to people when they are made redundant (severance in US), or thrown out of their local club, or their family / teenage gang totally ostracizes them for some reason.
Their world is often shaken to its core, and they are plagued by a sense of overwhelming anxiety. For many, it’s the same as the child no longer being able to find the mother. Total meltdown occurs.
This is why many of us will go to great pains to stay acceptable to the groups we belong to.
But there are potential dangers with this strategy of social acceptance.
In politics, once you have peeled away all the political and economic rational’ debate, often it eventually all boils down to a question of tribes.
You can always tell when a debate is really about tribes / comfort zones by the amount of heightened emotional response the debate stirs up within people, and this is one of the big problems with tribal politics, and also with family dynamics… because everything a rational debate becomes personal.
When you are part of a tribe, you feel safe and secure because the tribe is meant to protect you, and you theoretically share in the collective resources of that tribe.
But each tribe has its own set of beliefs, laws and customs, and to fit in, each individual needs to adhere to those beliefs, and follow the official line of behavior… even if it goes against their own self-interests… and the calling of their heart. As long as you behave as the others believe you should you are allowed to remain a member of the tribe. But as soon as you step out of line… as soon as you question or dare to be different… then you will be thrown out and ostracized.
Note: To our primitive tribal ancestors this was the same as passing a death sentence… one individual surviving in the wilderness, all alone, without the security and protection of the rest of the tribe… impossible. Ostracism not only got rid of the troublemaker, but it was a warning lesson to all the other members of the tribe to behave themselves and follow the tribal party line.
So to remain within a tribe, and the protection of the tribal comfort zone, there is a trade-off which needs to be made… safety / protection / communal resources versus individual freedom and expression.
But there is another potential danger with tribal and family comfort zones.
Basically, the world around us doesn’t stand still. Change is a constant.
History is full of examples where a group of people have banded together, established their own collective comfort zone to protect them and provide them with a sense of comfort and safety, created a shared set of beliefs and values that they all adhered to… and eventually the rest of the world just bypassed them, and left them behind, stranded within their out-dated collective mind-set.
The shared tribal identity provides a comfort zone for the members of that tribe, but unless the tribe is able to update their shared belief systems on a regular basis, to stay aligned with what is happening in the world around them… then the world has a nasty habit of eventually consigning that tribe to the dustbin of history.
The ancient Maya are a classic example of this. They had a very rigid social, political, and religious system, which bound the citizens of their city-states together, and seemed to be very effective for a number of centuries. But then, due to climate change, population growth and warfare, their city-states vanished under the jungle, as the populace deserted them.
Fundamentally, the Maya were unable to change their culture / life-style to adapt to changing circumstances.
It wasn’t just climate change and constant warfare that destroyed their civilisation, but also their inability to step outside the constraints of their collective comfort zones, and change their society to one that was more aligned to their new world… their entire civilization fell out of synch with the world around them… the world which supported them.
Note: Humanity as a whole faces the same kind of challenge as we speed headlong into the 21st Century… can we step out of our comfortable lives, and comfortable way of doing things… and face and except the need to change… and fast? Only time will tell.
There is a force within each comfort zone that fights to maintain the status quo, no matter what horrors lurk within.
We can see this in dysfunctional families, where the collective comfort zone can only continue to function as long as everyone ignores the obvious… the family elephant in the room. The father who is violent… the mother who drinks… everything feels safe and secure as long as no one brings the truth out into the light of day. Anxiety is kept at bay through ignoring the stark reality.
And this also occurs on an individual level.
For example, a man, in his late 40s, can see that his factory is going to eventually close down with the loss of his job, however, there is currently very little opportunities in his local area for his particular skill set.
In the time left, before the factory closes, does he:
• Retrain in a new set of skills, which employers in his area actively require?
• Look to move to another area, one where his current skill set is in demand?
• Do nothing, and hope that after the factory closes he will be able to find a job in his local area for his current skill set?
Now, putting other factors and considerations to one side, how he responds to this situation will depend greatly on how he handles anxiety in his life.
His comfort zone contains his current job and skill set. To learn a new skill set, or move to a new area, will mean stepping outside of his comfort zone.
If he is someone who is good at positively dealing with anxiety then it is possible he might opt for the first or second options. However… if he is someone who actively avoids anxiety, then it is far more likely that he will opt for the third option… do nothing, and hope everything will turn out for the best. But soon as he goes for option 3 then his fate is in the hands of the Gods, and his anxiety can only kept at bay through ignoring what might happen. Unfortunately, reality catches up with everyone in the end, and sometimes we have to face our worst fears.
Once again, we need to understand that people will go to enormous lengths to avoid the feeling of anxiety, and modern psychology believes that anxiety is the root cause of much mental illness. The mind becomes so desperate to avoid feeling anxiety that it literally ties itself up in knots, which is the cause of mental imbalance.
Next stage in our exploration of comfort zones coming soon.
(c) Brian Parsons October 2016.