Discourse presented on October 23, 2022 at Red River UU in Denison, TX
There are numerous authors of books in the self help and leadership development genres who make the case that meaningful personal growth is not possible unless we allow ourselves to get out of our comfort zones and be confronted and challenged by new ideas and new experiences. Although I am generally not a big fan of self help and leadership development books as I find them often to be overly focused on self improvement for the sake of self advancement, I do think that it is true that it is often necessary for us to feel a bit uncomfortable before we are able to change our minds about things and accept new and hopefully better ways of being and doing in the world.
It is rather easy to get overly comfortable in our worldviews and to want to avoid any changes that would wrest us away from our comfort zones. Our ideas and beliefs are often deeply ingrained in us through our environment and through the influence of persons who are close to us, and being confronted with the possibility that our beliefs and ideas might need to be transformed in some way is difficult to accept. We are creatures of habit, and change is not something we easily embrace, especially if the change is related to long held and deeply held convictions and values.
Sometimes it takes getting out of our comfort zones or being made to feel uncomfortable about the way see and experience the world before we can make changes and grow as persons. I see this looking back on my own life and perhaps you have experienced this in your lives as well. When I was a teenager, my comfort zone was a fairly fundamentalist form evangelical Christianity. I don’t look back at this experience as being an entirely negative one for me. The evangelical Christian community of which I was a part gave me a sense of acceptance and belonging that I was not finding elsewhere at the time, but after some years I began to see this sense of belonging, this sense of feeling included was all too often coupled with an emphasis on who did not belong, an emphasis on who and what were excluded. Non-Christians were excluded, persons of different worldviews were excluded, persons of different sexual orientations and gender identities were excluded, and even rational scientific thought was excluded. I began to see that my community was defined as much by whom and what it excluded than it was by almost any other factor. And through experience and relationships, I began to realize that I wanted to be a part of a community that drew the circle of community much wider than what I had been experiencing.
My relationships and experiences in college, seminary, and graduate school played a significant role in making me feel more and more uncomfortable about the people my evangelical Christian community was excluding. My close friendship with a person who is Muslim in college helped me see that I wanted to draw the circle of my community wider to include persons who orient themselves to religion differently. My many friendships with persons who are LGBTQ2S+ have made me want to draw the circle of my community wider to include persons with different sexual orientations and gender identities. As I noticed that the evangelical Christian community of which I was a part was primarily white and American, I began to want to draw the circle of community wider to be more global and racially diverse, and my experience of studying and living in a number of different countries and cultures enhanced my longing for greater diversity in community. And as I became more and more aware that my community was not recognizing the inherent worth and intrinsic value of non-human life, I felt compelled to draw the circle of my community wider to include all life on earth.
Such changes in my understanding of community did not happen easily or quickly. Change is rarely easy. I had to feel uncomfortable with my previous views of who and what should be included in community before I experienced transformation in my worldview, beliefs, and practices. It took the patience and understanding of family and friends who helped me feel uncomfortable without rejecting my personhood. It also took learning to say the two things that the wise man Arthur Fonzerrlli once had difficulty saying – “I’m sorry” and “l was wrong.”
I am extremely thankful for the persons and experiences that challenged me to get out of my comfort zone in order to embrace a more inclusive vision of community. I most certainly would not be with you in this setting here today if it were not for these patient persons and life changing experiences. But getting out of our comfort zones is not only about creating more inclusive community, as important as that is. It is not only about who is included in our community; it is also about what we in our communities do together to transform the world around us for the better and for the sake of justice.
Even when we draw the circle of community wider, we can still become complacent in our new comfort zone and not engage in the action that is urgently needed in our world. Even In our more inclusive communities, our comfort zones can create and perpetuate injustice zones for others. We never fully arrive at just and beloved community for all. It is a perpetual process that never comes to completion, but without which love, courage, and justice can easily give way to hate, fear, and injustice. The tension between enjoying the flourishing of human communities without allowing it to perpetuate injustice for others is a tension that justice seeking people must live with, even if this tension makes us uncomfortable.
Any time our comfort zones create and perpetuate injustice zones for others, this is a time to be uncomfortable and find ways to get out of our comfort zones to answer the call of justice. If our comfort with the economic status quo perpetuates injustice for others and does not respect the rights, well being, worth, and dignity of workers; we must become uncomfortable and answer the call to work for economic justice. If our comfort with the social structures and laws of our society perpetuate injustice for women, for indigenous persons, for persons of color, for persons of different religions and no religion, for persons who are LGBTQ2S+, and for immigrants and refugees; then we need to get out of our comfort zones and answer the call for social justice. When our comfort with our current practices in relation to the environment supports systems that bring harm to the most vulnerable and perpetuate environmental injustice and environmental racism, then we must get out of our comfort zones and answer the call for environmental justice. When our comfort with our diets and our agricultural systems perpetuates injustice for animals and ignores their welfare and the well-being and integrity of our ecosystems, then we must get out of our comfort zones and answer the call for justice for our ecological community. When our comfort with our systems of energy production and consumption perpetuates the injustice of an unlivable climate for future generations of life, then we must get out of our comfort zones and answer the call for climate justice. Love and justice call all of us to do all we can to make sure that our comfort is not built on injustice for others.
In one of his newspaper columns, through a fictional character named Mr Dooley, Finley Peter Dunn said, “The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Perhaps this is also the role of a just and beloved community – to afflict ourselves with the call of justice when we get too comfortable with the systems that perpetuate injustice, and to finds ways of working our way out of our comfort zones in the pursuit of justice for all. May we never get so comfortable that we no longer hear and heed the call of justice.