We have all heard the term ‘comfort zone’, usually in the context that we should be getting out of ours. The idea is that we have established an area emotionally, mentally and spiritually, in which we feel ‘at home’, and that this is not ‘good’ for us. We can only grow, they say, by leaving this zone behind and becoming uncomfortable on purpose - this leads to expansion, supposedly.
I’m not entirely sure that this is what happens. It seems to me that experience is relentless, and that the borders of our ‘comfort zones’, such as they are, are constantly besieged; hardly a moment goes by in this world without some kind of encroachment from outside occurring. If we deny that outside world and its advances, it seems that it is only encouraged to become more strident or even more violent in claiming our attention. The image of a ‘comfort zone’ can therefore be misleading: in actuality, we are surrounded at all times, and something else is taking place perpetually all around us. This happens whether we wish it to or not.
So what is this ‘something else’? And what can we do about it?
Broadly, it will suffice to call it ‘experience’, the apparently random flow of events which seems to come from ‘outside’ and which is to all intents and purposes beyond our control. In fact, ‘that which is beyond our control’ would be another definition for it. It is remorseless, unceasing, unforgiving and always alien in the sense that it does not seem to come from us.
What do we do with it? What should we do with it?
In practise, we all sanctify our experience in some way.
By ‘sanctify’, I mean to set apart as or declare holy; to consecrate; to make legitimate or binding as if by a religious ceremony; to purify; to cause to be or seem morally right or acceptable. We take in, or attempt to take in, what happens to us, and do something to it, processing it in some way so that it becomes a part of us.
If we cannot do this, or if our experience seems overwhelming, then the result is a loss of sanity and selfhood; if we succeed in doing this, we bring that experience into the wholeness that we consider to be ourselves, and we grow. In failing before the onslaught, we fall through various stages, from some sense of self, to a sensation of submergence, fading into shadow and then almost disappearing entirely, until we reach a point of nightmarish torment, a loss of our centres, a shattering of wholeness; in succeeding in the face of experience, we move up through the reverse of those stages, separating ourselves from darkness and confusion, becoming more and more aware of who we really are, emerging as new individuals, free people whose wholeness incorporates the world.
It’s often been said that writers share a part of their soul with the world when they write ‘from the heart’. It might be truer to say that when writers write with real integrity and authenticity, they are showing us how they have incorporated part of the world into their souls. First they take in; then they sanctify (whatever that involves); then they ‘write out’.
What is involved in this sanctification process for writers? It is what we normally call the ‘act of writing’, that journey within ourselves from which we return with ideas and images that we then commit to paper or a screen. For most, this is a thing that takes place outside ordinary consciousness, whether we call that subconscious or super-conscious - indeed, one of the supposed ‘benefits’ of writing is that leaving behind of ordinary consciousness and entering into a different kind of communion with oneself.
One may have succeeded in sanctifying an experience for oneself by committing such raw stuff onto a page. Often, this is all a writer needs or wants to do - the deed has been done, the process completed, the release or relief achieved. But to communicate that sanctification to another is what makes a truly successful writer. When readers feel that part of their own experience is undergoing sanctification as a result of reading a piece of fiction, something wondrous is happening: the writer has not only ‘processed’ a part of Life for themselves, he or she has done it for others too.
The raw stuff alone is usually not enough to accomplish this. Truly great authors can delve within themselves and find the treasures that readers will immediately recognise within their own souls, but more often than not the material that writers first recover from their inner journeys needs work: like gemstones buried in rock, the truth needs to be refined and displayed at its best in order to have the most impact. Thus writers need sympathetic editors and more and more drafts before their work can effectively reach across the void and ‘bless’ others.
‘Comfort’ does not have much to do with this, unless it is defined as glimpsing that deeper reality which results when the rough and sometimes brutal experiences of the world are made whole by the action of an individual’s soul.