There’s a reason our closest friends often reflect ourselves. There’s a reason we cling to what is comfortable. I love nothing more than being comfortable physically (which is why it took me awhile to get out of bed this morning), socially, and even spiritually as wrong as that may be. There’s a reason we find comfort in what is familiar and in those who are like-minded. Kindred spirits are soothing to our souls. We all need to lay in bed a little longer sometimes. But if we did that every day or for too long, we would get lazy and be unproductive. We would miss out on what the day has to offer and our lives would be less than they could be.
Last week, I felt a little uncomfortable. My high school friend, Rick Huckaby, was in town playing at the Dirty Bourbon Western Dance Hall & Saloon. My radio is never on country. It goes back and forth between NPR and Kiss FM (hip-hop). I am a city girl at heart, but was raised in a small town. It may not be my first choice (or second), but I can appreciate country music. I have fond memories of driving around singing Tricia Yearwood at the top of my lungs with my high school friend, Jennifer. I jumped at the chance to hear my talented friend play live. I wanted to support him living his dream, but I also just wanted to have a good time and treat myself to his musical genius.
For most of you, you just go even if it’s not your thing. For my husband and I, Korean Americans, you cannot help but be aware of the fact that you are entering a world where you will most likely stick out like two Asians in a Country Western Bar. To top it off, my husband had an upset stomach after dinner. When he told me, I felt like the Australian Open crowd. Mike was Victoria Azarenka calling a time out when playing Sloane Stephens. Was he milking that stomachache out of fears of being lynched? Alas, he was genuinely sick, and I was going to face the lynch mob alone. I will admit I was self-conscious getting in line by myself among the ten-gallon hats and cowboy boots. I felt lost walking around the Tim McGraw T-shirts and flannels. But armed with a strong margarita, I finally found an empty bar stool and plopped myself down.
Maybe it was the tequila, but I really had a great time. It was fun watching the dance floor as couples two-stepped around one another. Some of them were so entertaining to watch that it was better than any Dancing With The Stars episode. Then Rick played, and it was all I could do to keep from shouting out, “Go, Ricky!” like I did 20 years ago on the basketball court with him in a jersey and me in a cheer uniform. He was awesome as usual. There was a friendly stranger next to me who conversed every now and then with genuine kindness. He was a Marine who had spent time in Japan and traveled to Korea during his time there. He had a southern drawl, was decked in flannel, but did NOT want to lynch me. I got to chat briefly with Rick after his show, and it was worth it to say hello to an old friend.
I left the bar with much less fear than I had entered. I could have chosen to stay far away. I would probably still have fears of prejudice and assumptions that country music fans are of a certain mindset especially when it comes to minorities. Instead, I walked away challenged to see that those who feel most “other” are still quite like us. They, too, want to unwind and have a good time, maybe not to Usher, but a different equally moving beat. Their kindness can overcome fears and bring comfort to an otherwise potentially uncomfortable situation. My appreciation for country music was renewed and deepened. I felt my mind broaden, and that is priceless in and of itself.
Maybe if we were willing to face discomforts we would find ourselves engaging in conversation with those who seem most foreign to us. We would have our minds broadened, pleasantly surprised, and appreciating differences at an entirely new level. Without a doubt, we would be less comfortable and perhaps overly self-conscious, but maybe we would also become less polarized, less divisive, less likely to assume the worst of the other. I love examples of this. I know it will draw criticisms from both sides, but learning Dan Cathy (Chick-Fil-A COO) and Shane Windmeyer (Campus Pride/LBGT activist) were able to accomplish this very thing gave me comfort and hope.
Being comfortable is easy. Being uncomfortable is not. I find myself uncomfortable more often than usual. That comes with being a new person in a new city, new schools, new church, new neighborhood, and new communities. I want to let myself get settled in the discomforts of people who do not look like me or think like me or worship like me.
The greatest examples of discomfort go beyond a mere feeling to requiring courage and self-sacrifice. I want to extend my many discomforts even further and challenge myself to venture out of safety because it is the right thing to do. In Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, Robert Foster drives from Louisiana to California, his Promised Land. After leaving the deep South, he tries to stop at a hotel in Arizona, assuming he is beyond the evil grip of Jim Crow. He, former military and current surgeon, is turned away time and again simply because he is black. Even sympathetic hotel owners from Illinois do not rent him a room out of fear of the repercussions of their actions. Later, Foster stops at a gas station whose attendant is also sympathetic to Foster’s plight.
Something in the voice, in the way the man looked into his eyes and touched his shoulder and tried in the middle of a cool desert night to console him, made Robert feel all the sadder…Yes, there was an evil in the air and this man and the woman at the motel knew it, but here he was without a room and nobody of a mind to do anything had done a single thing to change that fact. And that made the pain harder, not easier, to bear….In fact, it felt worse because this wasn’t the South.
Being sympathetic is not enough. In fact, it produced greater hurt and pain when fears and discomforts prevented those sympathies from becoming action. ACTION is required. It is what friends at a Bronzeville church did in Chicago this morning when they gathered to pray over schools and parks. They do not just hear about all the senseless shootings and feel grief over children like Hadiya whose lives are taken unjustly. They rose into action and faced the discomforts of bitter cold because they believed something more than feeling sad was required of them. What does this all mean for me? It means more than going to a country western bar on a Saturday night. I’m wrestling with this because I do not want to remain silently comfortable especially when others are not afforded that kind of luxury.
As much as I long for the comfortable, I hope and pray that my life will be filled with discomforts. That I will be able to cherish the value of discomfort in every sense and that the discomforts I face will lead not just to greater understanding and appreciation, but to the active pursuit of bringing the right kind of comfort to those who need it the most. It’s not easy. There will be plenty of mornings that I linger in bed. But there is no doubt in my mind that it will be more than worth it. It will be the right thing to do. It will be invaluable.