The Art of Discomfort (Version 1)

Half the time I catch him sleeping, Max looks incredibly uncomfortable.

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I really don’t know how he gets into some of the positions I find him in, or why he would ever maintain them.

He recently found a cushion I leave on the floor (after it being available to him the past 3+ years), and has finally started making use of it. But still, I catch him every now and then back in what I can’t imagine is a comfortable position.

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As I’ve reflected more on the many ways Max lives in discomfort, I’ve realized that he may not be the only one. Max has taught me that there is an art to discomfort and it seems to be fairly widely practiced.

I too find myself living with a lot of discomfort – whether it is in getting sick and refusing to take medicine or in knowing the unsettling realities of poverty, racism, sexism, and a whole host of societal ills and not doing all I can to address them. I know the world doesn’t quite feel right, but I find myself curling around the sharp corners as if it were the only place to lay.

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Max practices the art of discomfort through a remarkable tolerance for pain, which I discovered after the vet noticed a really nasty ear infection several years ago. The infection has been gone for a while now, but I still think about how he gave so few clues that he was in pain.

Like Max, I also often want to tolerate and soldier on past the pain in my own life and past the pain I observe all around me. I ignore it, convince myself it doesn’t matter, or lead myself to believe it could be worse. While these all are very successful adaptive behaviors to live in a broken world, they are far from helpful in actually relieving the discomfort that I or others face.

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I’ve also noticed that Max tends to move from one uncomfortable position to another. When the one spot becomes too much to handle, he finds a new one, even if the new spot is equally uncomfortable. And I too, when overwhelmed by one uncomfortable situation, find myself drifting away from it to superficial involvement in a different uncomfortable situation. By moving around so much, I only get a taste of the discomfort before moving on to something else, and I don’t really have to address the deeper problems causing the discomfort.

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Max has taught me that it is far easier to dance around the discomfort than to face it and see that something needs to change. He has taught me that it is easier to get used to discomfort than to do what it takes to make the world a more comfortable place. And Max has taught me that by practicing these expressions of the art of discomfort, I really only perpetuate harmful causes or consequences.

So thank you Max for teaching me that it is far easier learn to live with uncomfortable things, rather than fix them. And thank you for awakening me to the importance of directly facing discomfort so that I don’t grow callous to or avoid the real problems around me.

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Needs

Max cannot feed himself. At least he cannot feed himself in a healthy way. He has often knocked over the trash can and rummaged around for food, but that only makes a mess and leaves him sick the next day. Though I think it would be nice if he could learn how to give himself just the right amount of nutritious dog food, I know he has neither the will power nor the ability to do that.

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Max has certain needs, like being fed, which he cannot fulfill himself. And yet he also has such limited capability to express those needs. He can and does whine when he’s hungry or needs to go outside, but there is little else he can do.

And I have sometimes failed to meet his needs. I feel terrible when it happens, but there was a morning recently when my spouse left for work and expected me to feed Max when I got out of bed. I mistakenly assumed she had already fed him and went about my day only to find out later that Max had missed a meal through my poor communication and inattention. Thankfully, this is a rare occurrence, but it woke me up to an important realization about needs.

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Max has taught me that I cannot assume that the needs of others are being met, especially those who are vulnerable and cannot fulfill their own needs. Too often in my life I come across an expressed need and think that either the person will figure it out or someone else will provide help.

I am blinded by my own agency and ability to the point that I forget that there are many animals and people who do not have that same level of agency and ability. Max has revealed my ignorance and reminded me that so many people are trapped in situations where they cannot fulfill their needs for food, shelter, security, or home.

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Moreover, Max has taught me that the burden is on those with agency to attend to the needs of others. Max has a very small voice to express his need. While he should use that voice and use it often, the responsibility is ultimately on me to attend to that need by actively looking for signs of it. And then the responsibility remains on me to find the best way to fulfill that need.

This responsibility is easier to identify in my relationship with Max because I have willingly become his care-taker. Nevertheless, I believe the responsibility still applies to other people I encounter, even if it is harder to identify. The freedom and power of self-sacrificial love compels me to use my agency to attend to other people’s needs, especially those I encounter who cannot fulfill their own needs.

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Max has taught me to truly wake up to the deep needs of those around me – not with the grogginess that leads me to overlook those quietly begging for food, but rather with an alertness that actively seeks out expressions of lack. To do that, Max has taught me to step outside of myself, recognize the ignorance reinforced by my own agency, and use that agency to move toward others in love.

And finally he has taught me to do this work in a way that does not prop me up as a hero, but rather in a way that begins to embolden those with less agency to feel more comfortable expressing themselves. All of this is easier said than done, and that last part is especially hard to do. But Max is continuing to teach me how to best respond in a way that encourages agency in others instead of suppressing them with my own.

So thank you Max for revealing my short-sighted, ignorant view of others whose needs are not being met. And thank you for teaching me to use my agency to lovingly meet the needs of others. Please continue to help guide me in doing so in an empowering way.