Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Comfortable Discomfort

On the last weekend of 2009, our family piled into the minivan and headed for Sea World San Antonio. The day lived up to the forecast for sun and 70 degrees, just ideal for an outing like this. As we approached our destination after a pleasant and uneventful ride, I spied something dimly in the distance that sent shivers down my spine. A serpentine structure towering above the trees, tall enough to be visible from a mile away (actual view). And to make matters worse, as we got closer, we could also hear associated sounds – screams, shrieks, lots of clattering. Blood-curdling… turned my socks yellow.

Roller coaster country again

You see, I have a rather strained relationship with roller coasters. I don’t remember being attracted or even curious about them for the longest time. I think I rode one in Kings Island, Ohio, with a bunch of other single friends, but my brain seems to have completely erased all memories of it. Then I got married to Sowmya in 1996. Within a few months I discovered to my horror that the quiet and demure gal I married had a wild side to her. Here we are, at Busch Gardens in Florida, enjoying the warm February sun, and this monstrous contraption comes into view. Her face absolutely lights up. I look at it doubtfully, but not wanting to admit I’m scared – hey, I’m her Prince Charming – I muster a weak smile and say, “Sure”. Little do I know what I’m letting myself in for. The next two minutes seemed like an eternity. My thoughts in that time are somewhat intense: “(Gulp)”, “Sh*t”, “Oh Sh*t”, “HELP”, “SH*T!!”, and “which sick, depraved engineer designed this?” etc. Let’s just say that hanging from small seats (this coaster was of the floorless variety) hundreds of feet high up in the air, moving at highway speeds but in distinctly non-highway directions and orientations, was NOT my idea of fun in any way.

The same summer, I found myself with Sowmya at the Cedar Point park in Ohio, the self-styled Roller Coaster Capital of the World. I can’t remember now how I got there; I’m quite sure I must have been drugged and kidnapped. Inevitably, she proposed riding the Magnum, and I succumbed to masculine pride one more time. This experience was worse. I especially remember the initial ride up to the top of the coaster – the swaying, creaking, painfully slow journey upwards, watching with growing dread the blue waters of Lake Erie stretching to the horizon on one side and solid ground disappearing rapidly on the other, waiting, waiting for the car to level off at the top, the unbearable pause of a few seconds and then the huge swoosh of air as the cars lurched forward and began that accelerating, dizzying, suicidal drop vertically downwards. It went against all natural laws and logical sense in my head. My brain was screaming, “Are you NUTS? How on earth can a vertical free-falling drop in an otherwise solid-feeling vehicle running on rails be a good thing? Why do people want to subject themselves to unearthly g-forces that practically snap your neck in two?” I could understand people hanging from monkey bars and other structures in the playground. But to spend millions on building these massive steel or wood structures? With so many starving children on the planet? I decided they must be either perverted or just extremely under-stimulated in daily life, and that I was just spiritually more mature than all of them lunatics. For most of the ride, I had my eyes tightly shut, body firmly wedged in my seat, a death-grip on the handrails in front of me and I blocked out all the sensation that I could. When I finally walked off that ride, wobbling on jelly legs, I swore to myself that I would never let macho pride take me for a ‘ride’ again.

That was 1997. In the years that passed, I grew used to letting Sowmya go on the big rides by herself, good-naturedly taking the ribbing from her and other companions, holding their purses and hats, taking pictures. Those occasions became infrequent & vanished completely, as our son Rithvik’s challenges with autism drew us out of outdoor ventures altogether. But later, as he emerged from his shell and grew increasingly confident outdoors and in crowds, we started taking him to parks, and wouldn’t you believe it, he turned out to be an even bigger coaster-lover than his mother. In fact, we haven’t yet found a ride that scares him.

Which brings us back to the last weekend of 2009 and Sea World San Antonio.

As we walk into the park and the family starts enjoying Shamu and the other marine characters, part of me is engaged in a deep conversation. Am I going to go through the rest of my life carrying this deep-seated fear? Maturity in admitting my fear is one thing, but a whole decade of sitting at that level? Confronting and conquering it sounds clearly like the next step forward. I look at the facts. Viscerally, the experience feels suicidal, sure, but logically it’s clear this is a safe experience – statistically safer than driving on the highway, probably. I certainly don’t need the sensory stimulation, but facing it and becoming comfortable with it would certainly increase my capacity to cope. I can glimpse beyond to the next step of actually embracing it, but that can wait. Hmmm. Blue pill or red pill?

Before I know it, we are at the doorstep of the Steel Eel. The moment of truth is here. Sowmya is asking each person in the party. Roshan, my 7-year-old, backs out gracefully, but Rithvik and his visiting cousin are an enthusiastic YES. Then I hear myself saying, “Me too”, and nodding again at the shocked look & questions that follow. I can feel my heart thumping, but surprisingly, it settles down quickly enough as we make our way up to the boarding area. When the cars roll in, the disembarking riders look uniformly shaken, though some have wan smiles. I have flutters of doubt, especially when I belt myself in and find that the car is too spacious for me to wedge myself in tightly. Rithvik is my co-passenger, sporting an enviable mix of excited anticipation and the inner calm that is his trademark.

Take off
During the dreaded initial ascent, I steal a few glances to the side, and am actually able to enjoy the panorama. Otherwise I keep my eyes glued to the bottom of the car in front of me. But when the top arrives, and with it the Big Drop, I’m calm and actually a bit curious, intent on discovering how this experience will turn out. Now, six months after that momentous ride, the primary memory I have of going through that formerly terrifying free-fall is… interest – in the physics of roller coasters. I remember being completely disoriented through those corkscrew turns, but this time I wasn’t like “AAGH! This is not fun!”, but more like, “Wow! This is pretty neat”. When my head snapped forward on entering each turn, I went “golly, we’re pulling quite some G’s here”! On some of the gentler twists, I even had time to steal a glance sideways at Rithvik enjoying himself thoroughly.

When we finally coast back to the station, I am exhilarated. Not by the physical sensations of the ride, which had graduated from Downright Terrible to Alright, but by the lightness of being that comes from discarding oppressive baggage. We disembark, all of us tottering a bit, but Rithvik and I are the only ones who want to ride again. We decide not to, since it’s getting late and cold.

But for the rest of the evening I’m riding high. Another piece of evidence I can use to prove that anything is possible, that the past is no guarantee of the future. To veteran explorers of inner space, this must come as no surprise; indeed, this particular fear must rank quite low when compared to, say, death, dying broke, public speaking, or looking bad in public. However, the general route to overcoming it is likely the same. I’ve often wondered about the the process by which a person comes to the decision to attack a fear, or any obstacle for that matter. Here’s a simple model I came up with. For instance, roller coasters went from my Uncomfortable DIScomfort box to the Comfortable DIScomfort box. One might be puzzled by the top box – how can Comfort be uncomfortable? Think of what you’ve been doing for so long that you now want variety - rearranging the furniture in your house, or taking a different route to work, or trying a different flavor at your favorite cafe.

What has been sitting for ever in your Uncomfortable DIScomfort box that you’re now ready to move to Comfortable DIScomfort?

1 comment:

  1. Sree,

    Wow that was really great and for me, quite timely. I was speaking with a friend yesterday talking about helping people to break out of their comfort zones. As we talked, it occurred to me that one of the problems in doing so is that, when we get uncomfortable, our first reaction is that something must be wrong.

    Because we associate discomfort with "bad", we immediately recoil into our comfort zones, remaining stuck there. However, as you put it, we can be comfortable with our discomfort thereby making it "good" discomfort.

    It seems that comfortable discomfort is the missing link and the key to expanding our comfort zones (in anything) and your roller coaster experience is a great illustration.

    Thank you!


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