Neale Donald Walsch, author of the Conversations With God series, says: “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” The quote is on a refrigerator magnet that reminds me daily of that wisdom.
There are lots of people who naturally thrive on adventure, adrenaline, and taking risks. I am not one of them. I have had to learn to be more that way.
I was raised to be afraid of nearly everything: thunder, lightning, too much attention, not enough attention, cats with claws, diseases with claws … you get the point.
As an introvert and deeply closeted gay kid, I hid in the back of the class. It was risky to speak up … to voice an opinion that might create conflict or put the focus on me. What if I was right? What if I was wrong? What if they guessed I liked other boys?
I grew up in a family that experienced bankruptcy and other uncertainty. I didn’t always know if what we had would be taken away — not just money but utilities, benefits, insurance and peace of mind. I grew up in a blue-collar town where I didn't feel safe being who I was.
In many ways, it made me err on the side of caution and security. I surveyed the landscape or room before entering. I gravitated toward just those I trusted. I stayed in some jobs way too long because I was too afraid to leave and face the unknown. I was careful and conservative with money — maybe too much so — because I had seen and feared the alternative.
I nearly got married to a woman because it was the “safe” thing to do. I will always thank her for ending it and catapulting me right out of my comfort zone. It wasn’t long after that when I came out to myself, my family and the world.
There are lots of positives to being extremely cautious. I believe it helped me to survive the AIDS crisis, which hit right around the time I started college.
However, it also robbed me of experiences and opportunities that I think about now with a bit of regret: moving higher up the corporate ladder, traveling the world at a younger age, putting myself out there more instead of being so afraid of facing rejection, and also having children of my own.
What has your comfort zone prevented you from experiencing or enjoying?
Don’t get me wrong: I have had a blessed life, and I am very grateful for all I have done and all I have, which is a lot. I just wonder sometimes how different things might have been if only I had been a little more able to let go of the life preserver.
I made investments. I purchased real estate. I started businesses with my partner. I honored my entrepreneurial spirit. Just in case things didn’t work out, though, I also always stayed with the “velvet handcuffs” of a secure, steady paycheck and health benefits at a time when the Affordable Care Act was not an option. I suppose it was my way of taking half a leap of faith.
Even though things worked out for the best, I wish I had been a little more adventurous in my career and life. I wish I had had the confidence to know I would be okay and to not worry so much about what people thought of me.
One of the nice surprises about getting older, at least for me, has been the ability to care less about what others think. That doesn’t mean I value them less; it means I finally value myself more. It means I can take more chances, like speaking up in a class, or doing something I love, without worrying about making a fool of myself, or not having enough money to pay the bills.
Being diagnosed with cancer certainly helped me to begin to live at the end of my comfort zone. When you are forced to face your worst fear — three times — and it somehow all turns out okay, you begin to wonder if other things you feared may also have turned out okay, if you had just had a bit more courage and faith to face them … or at least they might have been a little less painful.
Change can be frightening. Putting yourself out there can be frightening. Leaving your comfort zone can be frightening. But all are essential to truly living.
What ultimately made all the difference for me was developing a deep sense of faith and trust in something that is so much bigger than I am … than any of us are. It allows me to fly without a net most days now. It assures me, as Franklin Roosevelt said, that there truly is “nothing to fear but fear itself.”
This evening, I will lead the first night of a course offered through my newly formed Spiritual Writers Academy. The course is called “Blogging From the Heart." Even though I do just that every week, leading the class totally takes me out of my comfort zone. What if I mess up the Zoom technology? What if no one shows up? What if they don’t find it interesting or worthwhile? What if they want their money back?
Of course, comfort zones are two-way streets. I am sure there are those who are enrolled who might be asking: What if everyone else has more experience than I do? How can I give up my day job to become a blogger? What if no one wants to read what I have to say?
Yes, there will be a small but mighty group of us tonight leaving our comfort zone together. We will hold each other for the next five weeks as we let go of the rope, trusting the safety net that community and faith provide. I wouldn’t want to live without either.
My prayer this week is that you find just one way to leave your comfort zone — and see where it takes you.