On Comfort

As some readers might know, at the beginning of March, my wife and I opted to move out of our full-size house in the city and overhaul an old construction trailer/storage truck into a living space. We had several reasons for doing so, but chief among them were a feeling that we had accumulated too much of two “negative” elements: possessions and comfort. Along the way, I felt the need to articulate in writing my relationship with the idea of comfort and the argument for minimalist living. What follows is my first attempt at untangling some of these ideas to help myself and maybe others understand why someone would move out of a perfectly good house with central air and tons of room, in favor of 240 square feet and no running water.

I begin by admitting that living in the woods in what has been termed a “tiny house,” is a special kind of experience that not everyone is suited for. The drive to do so comes from the desire I’ve always had to experience life at its most “hands on” and primal- I like simple shit, and I’ve always found too much choice to be more of a limiting factor in my life than a rewarding one.

What I mean by “too much choice” is really “too much stuff.”

Don’t get me wrong, I believe that variety is, as the man said, “the spice of life,” but I tend to look at that as a statement about experience, travel, and different kinds of food. Left to my own devices in a comfortable house with too many options of what to do, what gadget to mess with, or diversion to engage in, is kind of like surfing the internet aimlessly, or going grocery shopping when you’re hungry- without a list. I don’t know about the rest of you, but when I do that, my cart looks like a study in bad choices across the board.

I get less done than I might if those choices were more limited by design.

This aesthetic/lifestyle crosses over into everything in my existence, from the motorcycles I dig to the training programs I run. I’m a Wendler guy, not a Westside guy (no offense to the bands and chains crew!). I like stripped down choppers- an uncomplicated, old school machine that is reliable and will take a beating.

The DIY style of life is also very important to me, from doing my own wrenching whenever possible, to stitching my own clothes back together- if it can be done with a heavy dose of motivation and a few YouTube videos, I’m all over it, and so the idea of living in a little house that I did the work on and know every part of directly is massively appealing.

I’ve seen a lot of documentaries about tiny house living, and I always have to laugh- I feel that most of the people in these videos have very little in common with me. Many of the males seem to have gentle, effete mannerisms and talk a great deal about “reducing their carbon footprint” and things of that nature, making it sound like they are performing a sacrifice for the greater good of planet earth. They hold their coffee cups with both hands wrapped around them in a way that I have always associated with females in bourgeois fashion catalogues as they model the new line of jeans and flannel shirts that these guys seem to also be wearing.

They’ve spent a pile of loot on these houses as well- some up into 30 or 40 grand for a house that is less than 300 square feet.

These attitudes don’t jive with me very much. I don’t spend a great deal of time these days thinking about my carbon footprint- maybe because that seems hypocritical to someone who uses a cell phone and rides a motorcycle and also owns a car, and shops occasionally at Wal-Mart and eats meat produced by the industrial world, and uses the internet (and run-on sentences), and all these other things that rely on technologies that are produced from slavery, murder, and the awful treatment of humans and other animals. Maybe I feel that its a bit ridiculous to think that simply living in a smaller house gives me some kind of moral high ground from which I can passive aggressively judge others who do not share my lofty world view.

Or maybe, on my more nihilistic days, I think that the world will probably outlive humans, and that it is total hubris to believe we as a race could destroy something that is billions of years old- or that it would even matter at all if we did that. In the grand scheme of the cosmos, what’s one planet? In the words of the immortal Russian: “If he dies, he dies.”

Most of the time, I just think: I have one short life to live, and I don’t plan to spend it worrying about the fate of the solar system- a thing infinitely older than myself, godlike in its massiveness, and its mysteries.

Wherever my philosophical mindset is that day, one thing is certain- I am not living this way to make a statement to anyone about a moral compass, but to follow my own compass, far and wide. I am doing it to embrace the concepts Speed and Freedom, living fast and dying full of stories- to avoid being static.

All these reasons were the spark that led to the fire of immolating my comfort zone and moving back out to the woods (I have done this before, a few years back, for about a year and a half). This deliberate destruction of what I term “comfort addiction” is something that has become central to the entire experience of getting back to basics for me, and moving into a very small space is a great catalyst for this, because of what it demands from you.

It requires you to own very little. There is simply no room for bullshit in a place this size- you have what you need and what you use all the time, and really, nothing else. This is one of the most liberating feelings I have ever experienced (both times I’ve done this), and at the same time, actually places a greater importance on and connection with those material items that you do need, or like enough to keep in your life. (I apply this same principle to friendships and it works wonders!) Having one or two nice knives is better than a drawer full of mediocre ones. You take care of them better. They receive more of your attention, and in my case, I like to personalize my few pieces of favored sharp metal with art on the handles, custom sheaths, and so on. You get the idea. The same goes for any of your other stuff- it ceases to become a throwaway mundane item and transforms into a work of art, a faithful friend- a sacred object in this ritual of existence.

You also have to get comfortable with the idea that choices become more limited at home for what you will do in that space. My home is not my “castle,” as exterior space becomes more utilized for “hang out areas,” and so on, and I spend less time at home, again, by design. At the last place I lived, I had so much stuff there (maybe not by some standards, but a lot for me!) and so much space to keep it in, I felt I never needed to go anywhere. This kind of thing keeps us landlocked and out of the storyline so to speak, whereas being away from home a lot is one of the entire reasons I chose to go back to tiny house life in the first place. We get too comfortable going from the bookshelf to the internet to the TV to the workshop or garage, to the kitchen, that we can become stuck in this eternal loop of domesticity.

Perhaps most importantly, and at its core, it demands that you reevaluate your understanding of comfort, convenience and “hardship.” Living in a little house in the woods is drastically different from living in a sprawling home in the suburbs, obviously, but its the little things about it that seem to have the most impact.

Getting up from reading to turn off the generator before I fall asleep, as well as making sure there is gasoline refilled in order to run it.

Not being able to operate every damn electronic device in the house all at the same time.

My experience is different from many in that I am living relatively primitive, with an outhouse and no running water, so even going to the bathroom is something that comes with its own “discomforts.”

Having to walk outside in the middle of the night in the rain is a hassle when compared with down the hall.

Refilling drinking water jugs from the spring several miles away.

Showering, for now, is done at the gym- I find myself missing very few days of my routine when it becomes tied into not only my training but also necessary hygiene practice!

All of these things, combined with sharing a car with my wife and running the shipping end of things from a friend’s house for the time being require a sharpened sense of planning and purpose throughout the day- scheduling the next day the night before in my notebook is very important to a productive week.

From the outside, I can understand that it might seem strange in a world where we don’t have to live with these discomforts, why I would still choose that life, but for me it comes down to a love/hate relationship with comfort itself.

“Verily the lust for comfort murders the passion of the soul, and then walks grinning in the funeral.”

I remember seeing these words for the first time when a friend gave me a copy of Thoreau’s “Walden” as I was moving off grid the first time, with this passage by Kahlil Gibran inscribed on the first page. Despite a dislike for some of his work, this passage prompted me to read his beautiful poem “On Houses.”

In it, the author conveys a longing for the open fields and woods, and for a return to a more natural way of life that exists outside of the walls of the city, and touches on the nature of comfort as something that eventually enslaves us:

“Would that I could gather your houses into my hand, and like a sower scatter them in forest and meadow.

Would the valleys were your streets, and the green paths your alleys, that you might seek one another through vineyards, and come with the fragrance of the earth in your garments…
Tell me, have you these in your houses?

Or have you only comfort, and the lust for comfort, that stealthy thing that enters the house a guest, and then becomes a host and then a master?

Ay, and it becomes a tamer, and with hook and scourge makes puppets of your larger desires.

Though its hands are silken, its heart is of iron.”

These lines made an impact, and have remained with me since first reading them. The words “it becomes a tamer, and with hook and scourge makes puppets of your larger desires,” resonated with me so strongly, the concept that we give up on many plans and actions that might lead us to spiritual strength, inner knowledge, and ultimately, glory, out of fear of the unknown, fear of discomfort, and an addiction to a life of ease.

It is in the human nature to escape pain and seek comfort. Indeed, there are popular schools of philosophy based around the concept that pleasure is good and pain is bad, and that the avoidance of the one and the seeking of the other is what makes a life worth living. I believe that the modern world has taken this fear of discomfort to its extremes, at the detriment of our greater experience. One cannot be inoculated to discomfort, that is, become undeterred by its effects, if we spend all our time avoiding it.

It might do us all some good to explore our relationship with comfort and ease, and ask ourselves what kind of life we might be living without an addiction to it? Would we set off more often on the open road, seeing what there is just over the next rise, a holy “yes” to life in our heart?

Would we train harder and deny ourselves the low road more often, our discipline becoming sharpened by this discomfort inoculation?

Would we remain the master at home, rather than the servant of all the things we own, all the things we take for granted, and all the things that dull our edge and seek to “make puppets of our larger desires?”

For my part, I will always seek out the path that rings the truest to me, and me alone. I look to make of my life a piece of art in motion, always striving for the perfection and ultimate freedom that I know will never come, but that the mere pursuit of fills me with the fire of purpose and meaning. I will look to the horizon and see in the setting sun a symbol of the transitory nature of life, and my brief time to experience all its joys and sorrows. I will tread my path with friends, sometimes, and alone, often, and know that “the cure for the pain is in the pain,” and I will despise comfort- and seek greatness instead.