I promise I won’t keep doing this too much longer. Maybe one more after this. But here’s one more rehashed newspaper column from the past, this one from June this year, which still feels like a long enough time ago to refer to it as the past. A lot has happened in the past month or so for me and it feels like I really was a different person in June.
It’s 8:44pm and pouring down – rain as loud as a recycling truck. When it rains at night I feel myself come a bit more alive, like a worm wriggling up to the surface to see what’s going on. I feel safer and more comfortable, because heavy rain means that everything can stop. You can wriggle to the surface of just this hour, just this night, and stay there. You don’t have go anywhere else in your head, not even to tomorrow. Basically I’m saying it’s an opportunity to have a good old-fashioned wallow.
But to get really, deeply comfortable – I mean, a comfort that is more than just momentarily enjoyable, like going into a furniture shop and testing all the couches without any intention of buying one – you’ve got to get uncomfortable first. The more uncomfortable the better. Sitting inside listening to heavy rain is nice, but being caught in that same rain on your bike on your way home, in anticipation of sitting inside listening to rain, is even nicer. It’s like our spirits need to be broken down, just a little bit, so we can really feel what we have when we return to it. It’s why people run ultramarathons, or dive into lakes in winter, or go to Glastonbury.
That said, there’s a risk of overthinking the discomfort/comfort equation. I once bought a new duvet that was more comfortable than any other duvet in my life. Sometimes I would be lying in bed and I’d feel so comfortable under this duvet that I would start to panic. Had I done enough for this comfort? Had I been sufficiently uncomfortable during the day? And was this duvet as comfortable as I was ever going to feel, or was there something even better out there? It was the feeling I imagine people get when they install a big fancy pizza oven in their backyard, and eat pizza all the time – great, but every so often that nagging thought: is this it? (Of course it’s possible that the pizza people never, ever have that thought. I don’t know.)
It’s like the German philosopher Hegel said: ‘What the English call “comfortable” is something endless and inexhaustible. Every condition of comfort reveals in turn its discomfort, and these discoveries go on for ever.’ Those might be the bleakest two sentences I’ve ever read. Hegel wasn’t talking so much about duvets as he was about how others can profit from the discomforts we go on discovering, and how sometimes we don’t even feel uncomfortable unless someone tells us that we are and that we could do better. Either way, discomfort – some new sense of inadequancy, some new hankering – has a way of arising pretty soon after we’re satisfied.
I watched a short documentary this week about a guy who ate only tins of beans for 40 days, inspired by a Steinbeck novel in which a poor family lives off beans. The documentary-maker ate different sorts of beans – black beans, four-bean mix, baked beans – and he ate each tin cold, with a spoon, averaging five tins a day. At the end of the 40 days he ran a 50 kilometre race, I guess to see what it would feel like to be literally made of beans and what his bean body would feel like when challenged – not very good, it turned out. Without the variety of foods he usually ate, he felt like he’d lost his personality. His sense of humour vanished, his crankiness increased. He was lost to himself. For a film about beans, it got existential pretty quick.
I think that like the food we eat we are made of the things that make us feel comfortable. Our routines, our favourite chairs, our pets, our favourite topics of conversation, our opinions – they’re not who we are, exactly, but they allow us to access who we feel we are. And if those things are taken away or upended, it forces us to adapt, which at first feels horrible, even shaming – it can make you feel sort of weak.
It’s still pouring down. A branch lands on the roof with a crash. As well as the worms, I often think about the birds when it rains. What are their feelings about rain? What do they think it is? Does a bird feel discomfort, or does it only ever endure the moment it is in, huddling and shivering, tucking in its head and puffing up into the shape of a little tennis ball? But obviously the bird has adapted to bad weather. Its body knows what to do. Even as it shivers like crazy and clings miserably to its branch, its tiny heart keeps beating, keeping it warm, keeping it alive.