The Cost of Comfort

We don’t have air conditioning in our home. Actually, I’ve never lived in a home that did. Growing up, whole house air conditioning, or central-air, as it’s often called, was not very common. Window units, if you were lucky, were the norm; and they were huge, loud, and seemed to only have on or off settings. They did of course have actual settings, but for some reason, changing the setting never really seemed to change the output.

Going to the movies or the mall was a popular summertime activity to get out of the heat during a heat wave. I’d have to research it a bit, but I’m pretty sure that’s why movies have a summer blockbuster season. (Maybe not this year… but I’m sure you remember the annual media frenzy.) Family vacations often offered the same sort of respite from summer temperatures – families would flock to places with water, cool breezes, or deep in the shade of an old forest. Evenings were spent outside on porches, there were trips to the ice cream stand for a cool summer treat, and car windows were rolled all the way down.

These days, even in regions that aren’t tropical, air conditioning in the summer is the norm – in homes, businesses, offices, and cars. Should our car’s a/c unit break, we lament the few minutes we may have to spend in a car without air. As soon as that first 65 degree (Fahrenheit) Spring day hits, the incessant hum of all the a/c units can be heard. We complain about outside events where we have to endure the heat and we generally don’t like the idea of being sweaty, unless a planned physical workout is on our overly busy schedule.

A few days ago, during a regional heat wave that put us in the mid 90’s (Fahrenheit), most everyone was complaining about the heat. As someone who runs cold, it has to be pretty hot and humid for me to complain. I’ll admit, while the afternoons during this recent heat wave were somewhat uncomfortable, it wasn’t enough for me to complain. After all, I can’t feel my toes for six months out of the year, so being hot is a bit of a novelty for me. I’m sure if I actually lived in a tropical climate, my views would differ- but that’s not the point.

One night, during this particular unusually hot spell for our area, I turned on the window fan in our bedroom and the cool night air rushed in. The cool air brought with it memories of nights at the beach, family trips, summer nights as a kid, and all sorts of summer fun – campfires with neighbors, playing tag until dark, picnics, sitting on decks and porches, catching fireflies.

I also thought about my grandfather, and how he would lay on his back on his bed, or sometimes the floor, with his knees bent, one leg propped atop the other – sort of cross legged, but in the air – as he relaxed in the summer. A window fan would move the cool air through the room then too. His hands were always clasped and resting on his chest, and he would often hum or whistle while in this pose. With his eyes closed he frequently fell asleep in this position; a feat which amazed us as kids – he was asleep with his legs propped up in the air! How silly and amazing!

But on this particular evening, as the breeze cooled our room, I started thinking about all the people who miss the pleasantness of a cool evening breeze because the air conditioner is running and they can’t remember the last time they opened a window. In the search for comfort, by omitting a little bit of discomfort from their lives, they have eliminated a simple pleasure too, the natural movement of air, a cool breeze.

I’m not saying air conditioning, is bad. Machinery that runs hot may need to be kept in cool areas. And then there’s our elder neighbor on dialysis, my husband’s Aunt with the heart condition, people with COPD or other health issues… sometimes air conditioning is necessary.

But for the vast majority of us living in temperate climates, it simply makes life more comfortable a few days a year, it’s not a matter of literal life and death. We might not sleep well for a few nights, we might get grumpy, we might feel a bit lazy or blase, but we’ll survive.

It’s interesting to me, how being uncomfortable can change one’s perspective. It seems that we, as a first world society, have become complacent in our comfort. We’ve become so used to being comfortable, in all areas of our lives, that we find discomfort unacceptable, we think of it as something to eliminate at all costs. And in doing so, we’ve confused being comfortable with progress and success. We’ve overlooked that our striving for comfort at all costs can, and often does, affect others negatively. We’ve skipped right over that middle ground, that sweet spot where everyone is comfortable enough.

And that’s a problem.

Climate change is a global catastrophe. Yet we continue to blast the a/c when it’s often unnecessary, drive gas guzzling automobiles, and do little to promote green energy alternatives. All so we can be comfortable.

Plastics and pesticides are polluting our ground water and oceans, causing health problems, and affecting our crops. Yet we continue to use them without much thought, because they make life easier, more comfortable for the end consumer.

We’re in the midst of a global pandemic. Masks have been proven, for decades, to help prevent the spread of germs, yet many refuse to wear them because they’re uncomfortable.

Indigenous people are being mistreated and forced off their land and controversial processes, like fracking, are being used so the rest of us can access oil and live comfortably.

Redlining and unjust laws are upheld or written, schools are unequally funded, and lending laws make it difficult for certain people to buy homes. All so other members of society can live comfortably in their neighborhoods.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not a Luddite. I’m not against progress or technology. It’s the opposite actually. It’s only through progress and technology that many of these issues will be solved. And I realize that I’m just as guilty of many of these comforts as anyone else. My point is, we’ve forgotten that it’s OK to be uncomfortable from time to time. It’s not the end of the world. We don’t sit with our discomfort very often. We look for easy solutions while overlooking the discomfort our choices might cause to others or the damage it might do in the future.

Now, I realize that as Climate Change gets worse, more and more regions will need climate control measures; but I have to wonder how much of a “chicken or the egg” scenario are we creating? What would happen if more of us were able to tolerate a bit of discomfort by turning up/down the thermostat and using less energy? I doubt we’d be able to reverse Climate Change – at least not quickly. But what kind of an effect would it have?

Imagine what would happen if…

we slowed down enough to curb some of our energy use.

we turned up/down our thermostat.

we turned off the a/c.

we drove more economical cars, or better yet, walked or biked places when able.

we found ways to better recycle the plastics we do use and eliminated the unnecessary ones.

we funded schools equitably.

we invested in communities.

we had a tighter, shorter, closer to home food chain.

There are simply so many issues right now, so many things weighing on my psyche, and probably yours as well. There are so many things that need fixed and so many things that I feel like I should do to help. But I get stuck. I freeze up and feel like I can’t do anything. I get overwhelmed and feel powerless. I don’t do anything because not matter what I do, it seems as if there is always another problem waiting to be addressed, someone who’s actions undo any of the progress I might have made, or the solution just creates more issues.

And then the phone rings, and it’s an automated call from the power company. They’re calling to tell us that during the last peak energy day, we were in the top 10 (occasionally the top 5) energy efficient homes in our neighborhood. (Yes, they really do this!) Knowing that our efforts to use less energy is noticed, somehow, even if it is by a giant energy conglomerate, reminds me that our conservation efforts help those in our neighborhood (the neighbor on dialysis I mentioned) who need to have the air on, and therefore need more energy at a time when it could be scarce.

I know that sounds silly and boastful. But somehow, when I struggle to see the bigger picture, and am stuck trying to figure out what I can do to help with any of the gazillion problems facing our country right now, being slightly uncomfortable a few days a year to help my neighbor stay healthy feels like a win. Even if they never know about it.

Do what you can for your win. If the cost of a bit of discomfort pays for more universal comfort, than that’s a price I’m willing to pay.