How do we grow our tolerance for discomfort? Keep asking how.

I read recently that if you want to get to the heart of something, ask the question “why?” five times. (So, parenthood has been preparing me for something!)

“I worked in group dialogue for years: often in dialogue to do with conflict and peace,” wrote Pádraig Ó Tuama, poet, theologian and host of the Poetry Unbound podcast. “That field of work—often called Narrative Medicine—has a lot of models for how to hold group discussions. Group processes are always a certain exercise in looking at a singular thing—a single story, a single reason, a single purpose—and making them plural. One technique that I learned was one that was attributed to a Japanese methodology. The way of discussing is simple. When someone says something of importance, ask the question ‘why?’ five times; not as a cornering or an accusation, but as an exploration of some of the layers supporting what is important to them.” 

I’m kind of interested in the how, more than the why, at the moment—it came more alive for me on May 5, a National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. How is genocide still happening? So, let’s ask how. How do we confront genocidal policies? How do we do reconciliation? Understand it’s a process, and it involves unpacking a lot of inherited racism.

How do we address/solve/eliminate racism? Local athlete, and anti-racism and diversity consultant Anita Naidu distilled it: get accustomed to feeling uncomfortable. She told Pique, “At the root of dismantling covert racism is White discomfort. So the best thing those who are committed to fighting racism can do is be willing to get really uncomfortable.”

How do we deal with discomfort? Build tolerance for the sensation.

How do we build tolerance? If you’re an athlete, you’re used to the sensation of discomfort. Your goal (to be faster, get to the top, clean a particularly technical section of the trail) pulls you through the sensation, until you get to where you’re going. And then you can puke. Or maybe you won’t, because you’ve built the stamina you needed to endure, as you pushed through the discomfort.

My partner has spent the past 10 weeks recovering from an injury. Part of that process is working through daily discomfort, massaging scar tissue, increasing mobility, sometimes just reminding yourself that the discomfort is part of the healing, sometimes seeking reassurance from your physio or emotional support person, (because your wife hit peak compassion weeks ago and gets an eyes-glazed look when you start talking about your injury): yes, this is part of the process. It won’t be like this forever. 

I’ve been soothing my discomfort through the pandemic by trying to let go of the need to be right, to be sure, to be certain (i.e., let go of the shore, the floating dock, the fixed thing) and stepping into the flow, trusting that there’s a greater intelligence at play, that’s greater than me, greater than Bonnie Henry, greater than COVID-19, greater than anything I can really understand, and it’s love, and I can choose to grapple and wrestle and rationalize and resist, or I can choose to unlock myself, and just step into the flow of all-things, and I’ll recognize the feeling of going with it, because it feels like being in love. Even if it means letting go of the shore, and having no idea where it will lead. 

How do we be OK with grey, movement, nuance … how do we cultivate that ability to flow beyond the familiar? Through developing a deeper sense of connection. 

How do we feel a deeper sense of connection (especially when in circuit-breaker, stay-back-from-people, don’t-gather mode)?  By exploring what it means to be in relationship. (I don’t have to be in the physical presence of someone, to be in relationship with them.)

Whether the COVID-19-related restrictions are heavy, light or some place in between, what is constant is that we’re living in a time of discontinuity and disruption. Discontinuity is a word that futurist Alex Steffen uses, for a watershed moment, “where past experience loses its value as a guide to decision-making about the future.”

Discontinuity, he wrote, is no longer a choice. It’s a simple fact of our lives.

History is instructive, but “what we’ve done before” is no longer a helpful guide. We’re going to need to let go of the familiar, and become more adept at being uncomfortable and still being our best selves, if we want to tackle systemic racism, climate disruption, or explore the regenerative opportunities coming out of the pandemic. 

How do we best do this? Honestly, who is at their best when they’re scared, in pain, uncertain, feeling mentally wobbly? And yet, my sense is that we grow this skilfulness in community. Not alone. Divided, we are conquered. We’ve got to keep nudging ourselves out of our comfort zones, into the messy process of community, of group, of trying to work out this stuff together, of putting it out there, of hearing people share things that make us uncomfortable and realizing that’s OK, that’s progress, that’s what we’re growing together—our tolerance. 

How do we come together when there are so many things pulling us apart, starting with economic inequity? I can stall out so easily before I’ve even started, when I pigeonhole myself into this dichotomy: privileged White homeowner living on stolen land. It’s not inaccurate, but it’s not the most helpful lens. I can’t fix structural racism single-handedly. And I think it might be another colonial fantasy to assume that it’s on me to come up with the solution. How do we approach these systems and remake them? In relationship with each other. How do we navigate that, when so many things, spoken and unspoken, pull us away from each other? 

After I listened to a recent Accidental Gods podcast with Ece Temelkuran, author of the new book Together: 10 Choices for a Better Now, I came away with the key to it: dignity. By treating each other with dignity. 

Ask it one more time, for good measure. How did you get from “how do we do reconciliation” to “treat everyone with dignity?” I walked backwards through a maze and ended up with a map.

This story ran in the Pique, June 3 2021.

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