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Viewpoint: The Discomfort Zone

In my early 30s I went on an Outward Bound expedition. It was designed for adults and boasted an alluring theme: life renewal. Like any Outward Bound experience, the trip was intended to push a participant’s physical and emotional limits, and it delivered in spades.

In my early 30s I went on an Outward Bound expedition. It was designed for adults and boasted an alluring theme: life renewal. Like any Outward Bound experience, the trip was intended to push a participant’s physical and emotional limits, and it delivered in spades. I returned home with a scraggly beard and a big grin, full of piss and vinegar and ready, with my freshly inflated ego, to take on the world.

I’ve often thought back on that experience and wondered just what I gained from it and why I pursued it in the first place. What is it that compels us to climb mountains, scuba dive with sharks, skydive, bungee jump or plunge down a zip wire? Why do we push ourselves to do things that are outside our comfort zones? Are we merely adrenaline junkies seeking a fix at every corner, or is there something more profound going on?

Last summer my wife, Carrie, and I sailed our 34-foot cutter from southern New England to Bermuda and back again—640 miles each way, during which we saw no other boats offshore. We did this not as part of a race or rally, but completely and utterly on our own. For us, this cruise was the culmination of what started over 10 years ago as a dream, not uncommon among the sea-struck, to sail offshore to distant and exotic places, just the two of us.

To reach this point, we climbed a long, steep learning curve aboard a series of progressively larger sailboats on which we cruised the New England coast, slowly acquiring the requisite skills for distance cruising—navigation, sailing techniques for both light and heavy weather, coping with storms at sea, diesel mechanics and boat maintenance, provisioning and cooking, communications, and so on. In the off-season we read books and trade magazines, practiced celestial navigation, studied the all-essential discipline of weather forecasting, and acquired a ham radio license.

Our cruise took a month and included two blissful weeks in the beautiful archipelago of Bermuda and 12 days sailing beyond sight of land. We encountered dolphins, sharks, flying fish, Portuguese man-of-wars, rain, mountainous seas and dead calms, star-studded night skies, and lightning storms so intense it felt like the end of the world. It was invigorating, exhausting, humbling, exhilarating and surreal. It was, for us, a true passage.

I believe it strengthened the bond we have as husband and wife and prepared us, in some way, for challenges yet to come. In the course of our lives we all encounter difficulty and danger, dilemma and turmoil, a lost job or home, illness, a death. Over and over we step up and are tested. Will we persevere or knuckle under? What prepares us to face the heartbreaks and calamities that are such an ordinary part of life?

Maybe our self-imposed challenges also help us to muddle through the ones that come clear out of the blue. Life experience, for better or worse, leads to growth. As Mark Twain put it:

“What is the most rigorous law of our being? Growth. No smallest atom of our moral, mental, or physical structure can stand still a year. It grows—it must grow; nothing can prevent it.”

The passage to Bermuda may well have been the swan song of our offshore sailing dream, but we continue to grow in any number of ways as a result. Just recently, for example, my wife, who is also my barber, insists something has begun growing again on the crown of my balding head—new hair! 

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