We live in a world that abhors discomfort.
Watch 30 minutes of television and you will see numerous ads testifying that product X will make your life better because it will be easier. There’s an app for everything and all promise to make you healthy, wealthy, and wise without having to exert yourself or experience anything difficult. Even better, you can do everything from the comfort of your own home! No more lines, no more interaction with others, no more putting on hard pants. Today’s neo-liberal society pays top dollar to be comfortable.
And why not? Our contemporary moment is marked by such violence, hatred, and uncertainty that it makes sense to crave things that feel safe and comfortable. In the world of COVID and global climate change, uncertainty is the air we breathe. Misinformation, disinformation, “truthiness,” “alternative facts,” bots, and conspiracy theorists have made it hard to know who one can trust and what one can know for certain. (Critical literacy takes a work that is uncomfortable.) In our current political climate, “difference” is evil and “they” are the enemy, so we retreat into the comfort of our echo chambers. Even the uptick in bread baking, knitting, mindfulness and mental health apps—Harry Styles reading books!—and pet ownership all speak to this desire for comfort. When faced with fight or flight, humans seek safe and comfortable.
However, psychologists tell us that avoiding that which makes us uncomfortable does more harm than good. In the 2021 article “How to Stop Feeling Anxious Right Now,” reporter Emily Delzell speaks with multiple psychologists about how humans today might navigate our uncertain times. Whereas the click-bait title suggests readers will find a few easy steps to be anxiety-free, the article actually contends that feeling discomfort and anxiety are part of being human, and, as a result, must be felt. Delzell references the work of Dr. David H. Rosmarin, Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School and founder of the Center for Anxiety in New York, which acknowledges that it is “normal to want to get rid of those uncomfortable, pit-of-the-stomach feelings as quickly as possible. But that approach can make you more anxious.” Instead, Dr. Rosmarin encourages engaging with that which makes us uncomfortable, saying, “When we let anxiety run its course in the moment without fighting it, ironically, that makes it less. On the other hand, fighting anxiety is what typically [triggers] a panic attack.”
I know that clinical anxiety is not the same as discomfort; however, I’ve come to believe that the practice of acknowledging, examining, and learning from anxiety can be transferred to that which makes us uncomfortable. I think about discomfort a lot because the literature I teach in the humanities classroom can make students uncomfortable. I am a scholar of African American literature, and for many students, these narratives are new and sometimes challenge ideas they have accepted as givens. Stories that ask us to think in new ways can be discomfiting because we cannot go about “business as usual.” When our modes of interpreting a text or the world no longer work, we have to start from scratch, and relearning is uncomfortable.
There are some who claim that we should not teach books that make students uncomfortable and organize to prevent such. More often than not, these discomfiting books are those that tell the stories of diverse peoples whose experiences are not always reflected in standard curriculum. These texts help to expand (and at times correct) the story American culture tells about itself, and for some, that is frightening. To them I say, however, encountering new ideas is how we grow.
Reading can be likened to strength training. Ten years ago, I got a trainer because I wanted to learn how to properly lift weights. I showed up to my first appointment and, after the terrifying discovery that my trainer was John Cena moonlighting at Gold’s Gym in Provo, I was taught proper form and the way to sequence workouts so that I could slowly build up strength. This was anything but comfortable. My legs shook, I couldn’t lift my arms some days, and a good day was when John Cena said, “Hey—you didn’t feel barfy today!” When my training sessions ran out, I was pleased to discover that I had developed stronger muscles, greater resiliency, and a confidence when faced with new challenges.
Reading texts that make us uncomfortable can have the same result. Now, uncomfortable is different from harmful. For instance, a text that refers to sexual violence can be harmful to survivors, and those texts should come with a content warning or an opt out. Reading a book that challenges your viewpoint and invites you to think differently isn’t harmful. It’s educative. Reading serves three purposes: to inform, to entertain, and to educate. In my mind, “educate” is synonymous with “challenge” because education invites us to engage the new, reflect on the old, and determine how we will or won’t integrate these ideas in the present. Reading texts that invite us to consider new perspectives or stories may unsettle us at first, but ultimately, leads to intellectual strength, emotional resilience, and moral growth if we are willing to put in the “reps.”
This is not to say that we should throw our students in the deep end. Ethical pedagogy involves scaffolding a conceptual framework upon which students can build and then providing a safe environment for them to ask questions and entertain ideas. If my students read something that discomforts them, I invite them to ask themselves: 1) what am I feeling? What would I call this emotion? 2) How does it feel in my body? 3) Where might this be coming from? 4) What can it teach me? I also fold these questions into two learning assessments that train students to be self-reflective readers. The first is a series of digital dialog questions that invite students to reflect on a reading and a new concept it introduced to them. I alone read these posts and we engage in a conversation. The second assessment is a short paper which asks students to formulate an affective argument about a text, examining a feeling the text prompted, identifying the formal or thematic choices that invited such a feeling, and drawing conclusions about what that feeling is attempting to accomplish. These assessments and others invite a type of critical self-reflection that makes students more self-aware of what, how, and why they think as they do. They invite active reading, as opposed to passive consumption. Ultimately, they empower students to choose for themselves how they want to engage the world of ideas and the world around them. Equally importantly, they are enabled to articulate why they are making that choice.
When I consider who perfected this model of teaching—a pedagogy of discomfort—I think of Jesus. In her book short stories by jesus, Dr. Amy-Jill Levine writes that Jesus’s parables were “provocations,” difficult stories meant to “challenge us to look into the hidden aspects of our own values, our own lives.” She asserts that “They bring to the surface unasked questions, and they reveal the answers we have always known, but refuse to acknowledge.” Levine’s book suggests that as contemporary readers we often domesticate the parables, reducing them to a singular meaning that is comforting in its reproducibility. But, she cautions, “We do well to think of the parables of Jesus as doing the afflicting. Therefore, if we hear a parable and think, ‘I really like that,’ or, worse, fail to take any challenge, we are not listening well enough” (3).
For Jesus, discomfort was an act of grace.
Any reading of the New Testament will confirm that Jesus invited listeners to think in new ways. Jesus taught stories that featured those who had been pushed to the margins: the poor, widows, fatherless, women, prisoners, foreigners, prostitutes, and imperial tax collectors. I’d like to think that Jesus drew these stories from his many documented experiences of sitting with people who were wholly different from him. He listened to their stories so that he might understand them and love them completely. He realized the value in their lives and what they had to say. Thus, it is no surprise when, in Matthew 23, Jesus chastises community and religious leaders for selectively teaching and following God’s word, telling a single, incomplete story that excludes many and neglects “justice and mercy and faith” (v. 23). Jesus’s ministry worked to fill the gap in these teachings. His repeated construction, “You have heard it said . . . but I have come to say” was meant to unsettle listeners because it announced a new, fuller way of seeing the world. We also read that Jesus’s teachings discomfited the priest class because it revealed a truth they had tried to keep hidden: that their teachings and conduct were unjust and self-serving. However, the gospels also tell of many who embraced the self-reflection provoked by these stories, recognizing what needed changing so they might live the good news.
For Jesus, discomfort was an act of grace. It was the new witness that ushered in the new way. It was the call to give up one’s life and follow him. It was the call to reflect upon one’s own shortcomings instead of pointing out others’ failings. The New Testament is riddled with people feeling uncomfortable with Christ’s words and deeds, and that discomfort was a grace for it showed the way to a salvation we can never earn on our own. Discomfort is a grace because it was Christ’s way of inviting repentance—an invitation to reflect on and release those harmful thoughts and deeds that weigh us down, keep us from doing better, and prevent the body of Christ from being whole.
In a similar way, reading things that make us uncomfortable invites us to expand our understanding, identify harmful or limiting ways of knowing the world, and commit to do better. Or, as the apocryphal Maya Angelou quote says, “When you know better, do better.” Indeed, studies documented in the Washington Post, Harvard Business Review, Medium, and other outlets, demonstrate that reading literature about a wide range of experiences makes for more informed citizens and more empathetic human beings. More importantly, reading about experiences that differ from or challenge our own help us to develop the compassion and pure love of Christ we covenant to magnify as Christians. We cannot build Zion if we cannot love or see the image of God in all of God’s children. The work is hard and isn’t always comfortable, but it is the work spoken of in Ephesians 2:19—creating a place of belonging where we are “no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God.”
This blog post was written by Kristin L. Matthews, Professor of English at BYU.