Step into Discomfort

Rosa Walker
Jan 23 · 5 min read

Move out of your comfort zone: Expand your social and idea network

My hands scramble at the book of Japanese cartoons that my son, Tomas, has brought home from the library. The cover is put on wrong. There must be some mistake!

Even after I remember that in manga, or Japanese comics, the story should be read from right to left, I stand there, bewildered.

My stomach lurches. The ground tilts at my feet. My heart beats a little faster. My sense of discomfort is visceral.

Now, my expectations about how the world should work have been overturned in more profound ways, both in daily life here in rural Oregon as part of a biracial, bilingual, mixed immigration status family, as well as in living and traveling in Argentina, Bolivia, Spain, and Italy.

Yet I am always humbled by how tightly we grip onto ideas about how things work and how people should act. Dangerously, we don’t even name them as ideas or opinions, but rather, “just how things are done,” or “the way things are,” if we name them explicitly at all.

Ideas can be about gender, parent-children relationships, our responsibility to others, and how authority figures should be respected/treated. Big stuff. The moral underpinnings of our lives.

More surprisingly to me, are the ideas that creep in disguised as everyday facts. Such as how warmly to dress children. Whether to salt rice when it is cooking, or to add flavor with food on top. How to plant tomatoes. In what direction to hold a book and read it.

We carry our ideas unknowingly, until like invisible submarines, they bump up against a different way of doing things.

And in that moment of disequilibrium, our reflex can be to shove away the information that challenges our basic understanding of the world.

And if we cannot reach inside, and name discomfort for what it is, as a disorientating conflict between what we thought was a fundamental fact, and what we now realize other people do differently, discomfort can quickly harden to distrust and even disgust.

In our bid to right ourselves and find balance again, we can push away new ideas, and the people who brought them, as a slap-stick defense.

How do we go about the experience of ideological discomfort differently?

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One route is to seek out more experiences in which our ideas are challenged. We should make a habit of engaging in activities and conversation with people, in which our ideological infrastructure will likely be exposed, questioned and maybe even overturned.

Tanya Menon, Associate Professor at the Fisher College of Business, urges us in her TED Talk to change our “habitual daily footpath,” which exposes us to the same daily physical environments, people and ideas.” A loss of efficiency and convenience will likely mean a gain of diversity. “A simple change in planning, a huge difference in the traffic of people and the accidental bumps in the [social] network,” she explains.

Further, she explains that people who can truly listen to others and reserve judgement, are people who are able to cultivate “high bridging networks,” of social and embedded idea connections. Benefits from interacting with ideas and people that challenge our way of thinking include general enrichment, more creativity, and even getting a new job, or being promoted more quickly.

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Of course, as she underscores, the how we go about seeking new interactions with people and ideas is important.

As another example, Caitlin Quattromani and Lauran Arledge offer advice about how to build a friendship with someone who has distinctly different ideas. In their TED Talk, they describe how they maintain a “bipartisan friendship,” in a politically divisive time.

Their narrative offers suggestions that are at once both common sense and profound. Focus on “dialogue versus debate,” they suggest. Frame the conversation with different goals. This is not about winning or finding weak points in logic, but about listening with curiosity and empathy.

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These suggestions resonate with what Julia Galef reviews in her TED Talk as the difference between a scout mindset and a solider mindset. Acting from a solider mindset one is in a defensive mode. Acting from a scout mindset, one is earnestly trying to see and explore what actually is, with as much accuracy as possible.

One is interested in the topography of truth, or in getting as accurate an understanding of the situation as is humanly possible, even if it challenges previously held ideas.

Perhaps most importantly, people acting from a scout mindset demonstrate the trait of being “grounded.” Put simply, their feelings of self-worth are not tied to accuracy with a topic or challenge. So, with this characteristic, they can emotionally afford to be curious, open minded and fully committed to inquiry — regardless of whether their belief is challenged or backed up.

The inspiring part? Acting from a scout or solider mindset is not necessarily correlated with IQ, and it is more of a characteristic. We are all able to cultivate more of a scout mindset towards challenging ideas and the people who often bring them.

Truth is, in our current political-social time, our ideas feel deeply personal. And we are losing the practice of open, empathetic discussion. Of stepping into a deep conversation with another person with wonder and curiousity.

What if we all took the challenge to seek out a small sip of ideological discomfort this week?

What if we read a book or article on an unfamiliar topic, or better yet, on a familiar topic but from a different point of view? What if we talk to someone with whom we don’t typically talk, and then truly listen with curiosity, openness and empathy towards her/his response and deeper story?

Personally, whenever I feel myself take a step back into my comfort zone, I think of my children, as well as of all the other multilingual, multiracial, multicultural and interfaith children in my life, and in this world.

You see, these children experience ideological discomfort, or cultural dissonance daily. They live in the seismic zone of conflicting cultural and sub cultural rules of conduct. They are actively figuring out how the world works at the friction point of different ideologies and faiths. They are creating a sense of self in the liminal space of being between and across different cultures, languages and races. And if well supported, they can thrive at these intersections.

If they can live in ideological discomfort, can we take one small, daily step in?

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Rosa Walker

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Mother of biracial children. Early childhood educator. Child and family advocate.

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