Some years ago I was fishing for trout on a large lake. Normally a steady wind blew across the water, ruffling the water like Ruffle potato chips, but this time the water was as calm as the milk in cereal bowl, so much so that the trees reflected in the water at the edge of the lake looked like an extension of the forest. The air was warm and heavy and I could smell rain coming. The sky darkened quickly and a peal of thunder echoed through the mountains, confirming my thoughts.

I like storms, but I was out on the lake in an aluminum boat. My heart seized in my chest like a fist and I began rowing like Jaws was chomping at the end of my boat. The thunder grew louder and the flashes of death bringing lightning came quicker. The rain started falling as I neared shore and only my mad rowing and a yelping dash into the camp saved me from a bath or being lit up like a Christmas angel.

I sat on the porch in safety, watching the water come down and the lightning flash. After a moment to catch my breath and relax my herky jerky nerves, I felt like pulling a blanket around me and settling in for nap. It seemed the perfect place, dry and cozy, a comfortable distance from the storm sweeping through.

It is in such situations that I always find myself – at the edge of danger and the safe haven. I find these situations make the best stories. They are exciting and something interesting always seems to happen.

One of my friends said that listening to my stories is like watching McGyver. I laughed, but in a small way she was right. Another friend asked me why I always write about uncomfortable situations that I have experienced. My answer was simple. In uncomfortable situations, there is room for growth.

I know a girl who loves to sing. She can belt out tunes in a car like you wouldn’t believe, but when it comes to karaoke in front of people, she gets all shy and hesitant and clams up. You wouldn’t even think she could sing. My parents don’t like to fly because they are afraid of planes. My buddy can see a girl that knocks his socks off and won’t go talk to her because, “hey, what’s the point. I’ll make a fool of myself and she’ll blow me off anyway.” A lot of people are like us. They seek the comfortable, safe place when uncomfortable situations arise, be it a storm, an angry neighbor, talking to the homeless man and looking him the eye or volunteering to help chaperone a teenager’s party or ring the bell outside Walmart. They avoid the confrontation, they avoid embarrassment that might come from trying something, they avoid the things that they are unsure or not very confident of handling well, or of donating their time.

It’s an easy road to sit back and do nothing. A comfortable road. Your heart never leaps in your chest. Your palms don’t get sweaty. Your stomach won’t clench or twist your intestines into cat’s cradle knots. You won’t face embarrassment. You can live this way. Many people do.

But you also won’t win the day. You’ll never try something and feel amazed that trying worked. You’ll never feel the electric tingle of kissing the girl, never get the job promotion, the cushy office, and the pay raise, or see the soft sands and blue waters of Hawaii. You’ll never see the smiles or tears of people who appreciate your time and effort and care.

It’s a comfort zone, and everyone loves their comfort zone. Nothing wrong with that. Comfort zones keep us safe, keep us from doing stupid things. They help us be ourselves. But often there are moments when we need to expand these zones. We know those moments. They are the moments that twist your gut and tug your heart, the urgings that you try to ignore or pass off as gas, the moments that pass and later you kick yourself for “missing” them. It’s most times when you say, “I should have done that. Why didn’t I do that?” It’s your spirit responding to the moment, hoping that the rest of the body and mind will follow. It’s about getting what you want and probably need even if your head doesn’t realize it — the very things that make your life richer.

Comfort zones are like playing sports. When you’re practicing basketball, or running, or hitting the gym, there always comes a point when it becomes uncomfortable, when your body begins to feel pain, where it says we should stop now or tomorrow you’ll really be hurting. Some people listen and stop. They wonder why they never get better, why they never lose that extra five pounds hugging their hips. It’s those that push through the pain that feel the payoff. The next day hurts, but after a week or so, they can do more than they did this week. They make progress and grow.

It’s a pleasure watching kids. They have such small comfort zones, but they don’t seem to be afraid to step out of them all the time, so much so that it seems like they don’t even have them. They talk to anybody and everybody and even kiss smelly old Uncle Forsker who smoked too many cigars and has liver spots all over his face. They get up and try walking when they’re teeny tots and try running not much later. They mangle words as they learn them and giggle at all their mistakes. Ah, to be a kid again in this sense…

It’s a continual process. I’m always finding new areas where I need to expand my comfort zones, times I need to step outside my castle or let more people through the gates, and that’s probably why I have so many stories, many of them ending in failure. But I have realized that being comfortable in a situation is not about being Superman, ready and able and strong enough to handle anything that comes my way. It’s more about my attitude and being willing to step outside even when I don’t want to.

© Seth Crossman