I recently took a cross-country bus ride that was anything but comfortable. After those in my row had experienced bloodshed—the bus bounced so vigorously that a man was thrown up in the air, hit his head against the luggage rack and gushed blood just a few feet from me—and a whole lot of sweat in this bus without air conditioning during summer, I laughed to myself that we had nearly completed the trifecta of blood, sweat and tears. Then night came, and babies started crying because they could not sleep. Perfect.
But something else happened on that bus trip. After many of us first vented our frustration over our shared misery, several of us laughed at just how ridiculous it was. And we bonded. We did not enjoy comfort on that ride, though we started to enjoy the contact with those who were previously strangers but now seemed to be fellow soldiers in a battle together.
This was not an isolated experience. I’ve amassed thousands of miles “flying Greyhound” across the United States; and while a plane can get me to my destination much faster and more comfortably, the trip also tends to be easily forgettable. I remember very little of the small talk I have made on countless flights, though I vividly remember many of the characters I have met on buses: the driver who regaled me with stories from the road for six hours, the 18-year-old preparing to be deployed to Iraq, the man who told me T.M.I. (too much information) about his love life.
These experiences are like those that make me appreciate staying with a family rather than sleeping at a hotel when I am on the road. Having my own space, free from disturbances, at a hotel is certainly comforting, whereas staying with a family I’ve just met can lead to some uncomfortable moments—especially if they are not coffee drinkers and I’m unable to get my fix in the morning!
Still, I almost always find those stays with families to be far more satisfying. I might feel awkward staying in a room decorated with the mementos of another person’s life, but I am frequently amazed by the goodness and generosity of complete strangers and often leave a city with a richer experience than if I had stayed in a hotel. The joy of forming relationships through shared contact outweighs the possible discomfort.
Of course, we are human beings, not machines, and most of us cannot deal with constant discomfort. At times, we need simple pleasures. After living in Tanzania for some time now, I would give a kidney for some deep dish pizza or simply to blend in rather than sticking out as one who is obviously an outsider.
That said, always choosing the easy or comfortable option might not be what brings us the most satisfaction, most especially because the comfortable route frequently reduces the amount of contact with other people beautiful, hurting, hilarious humanity.
When I read in the Gospels about thousands following Jesus for days, I often forget that this was a time without air conditioning, deodorant and public restrooms. This would have been miserable! At the same time, it is apparent that those who hung on Jesus’ every word were not in misery; despite difficult conditions, they could not get enough of who he was to them. Contact with Jesus made all other matters insignificant.
It’s not surprising that for thousands of years people have found going on pilgrimage a privileged way to connect with God. We can still find God in comfortable places; though when many things are out of my control, as they are when on pilgrimage, then I’m more likely to let God be God and open myself up to those who enter my life.
I’m not suggesting that we start clothing ourselves in camel’s hair and eating locusts and wild honey à la John the Baptist. Being uncomfortable is by no means inherently holier than being comfortable. Still, in choosing how we spend our time, where we stay or how we travel, we might ask ourselves: How might this promote or prohibit my contact with other children of God? Could this lead to new friendships, spontaneous conversations or shared laughter?
People can be annoying; and when you pack many on a public bus, we can be a sweaty lot.
When you share blood, sweat and tears with others, however, you certainly know you’re not alone in this world. Contact with others—even when it is uncomfortable—is what really brings joy.