Modern American society is infected. It carries within its veins a disease of it’s own making: we are too comfortable. All we want is to be safe and comfortable so that we can enjoy the vast number of luxuries and entertaining distractions available to us on a daily basis. The existence of those luxuries and entertainment are not in themselves the problem, they are the sign of a successful society in which most people can consume large quantities of entertainment while still satisfying their basic needs for food and shelter. Again, it is not the consumption of entertainment that is the problem, but the change in people’s goals.
The goal for many used to be something like this: “I want to improve my own personal productivity, creativity and success so that I can be the very best that I can be, and I’ll consume entertainment along the way as a healthy distraction.” Now, the goal of many is: “I will work only enough to support the cost of my hobbies, luxuries and entertainment and retire as soon as possible.” Fun and escape are the point, and the subject of much more mental energy than the productive work they perform. There is nothing wrong with planning a well earned vacation, but when the best creativity and effort is not or cannot be used at productive work, therein lies the problem.
The result of this change is monumental. No longer can we expect these people generally to work hard and be creative to get ahead or make a better life for themselves. Now, we expect them to do as little as possible to get by and try to game the system whenever legally permissible to do so. That is the essence of Comfortablitis.
Fortunately, this condition is not born in people, it is created. Our youth hear stories in high school and college of how they can be successful. They dream of creating a business from nothing on the internet, or becoming the next American Idol and they believe they can do it. They start their journey with boatloads of optimism and energy, only to have that drive sapped away by constantly banging their heads against bureaucratic walls monitored by people who are infected – who do their jobs without thinking.
“I may be a bureaucratic wall monitor, but I’m not a bad person,” you might say, “I do my best and try to help people through the process.” More people are employed every day as wall monitors. Even so, there are millions of good people who want to contribute good ideas and do their best, but they are not asked to think, and their creativity is not welcome. They may be able to make changes around the edges – they paint the wall, or put up signs on how to go around it, but they can’t tear down the wall. The wall is there for a reason, it must be. In some cases, the reason is so far removed that nobody remembers how the wall got there, and they certainly have no power to remove it.
What is that reason? Safety. The walls are generally created by someone who saw an actual or perceived threat to their safety and created a wall to protect against it. Licensing requirements for doctors, lawyers or drivers keep people out of those professions or off the street until they demonstrate a certain level of proficiency. The FDA makes drugs pass through extensive testing before they can be offered to the public. Our children are forced to wear bicycle helmets. All are walls that are there for a reason. Sometimes we even put up walls of protection ourselves, such as when we hedge our investments, buy insurance or push away from a friend who becomes a bad influence. All these things are efforts by ourselves or others to protect our safety, and they are not all bad, but they all come at a cost.
Safety is an essential part of our communities, and our nation. It is the bedrock upon which all our other freedoms are based. If we are not safe from attack abroad or crime from within, we cannot enjoy any of the other freedoms we ostensibly possess. What is strange about this relationship is that in many ways, freedom and safety are polar opposites.
On the one hand, we have absolute freedom. This is often referred to in political writings as the “state of nature. ” It is the dog eat dog – survival of the fittest – may the best man win – world of total anarchy. You are free to do whatever you want with no rules at all, but you are always at risk that your neighbor, who also follows no rules, will deprive you of everything you hold dear. On the other hand we have total safety. The image that comes to mind is a padded room with a straight-jacket. You are completely safe from everyone and everything, including yourself, but you have no freedom at all. You have no fear of losing anything, but you cannot enjoy any of it either.
Neither of these situations sounds very appealing, does it? No, we require a happy medium. We need enough safety so that we can enjoy our freedoms without fear, but not so much safety that we fear for our freedom.
Most soccer moms want safety more than freedom. Their job is to protect their children, so safety is appealing. Politicians never lose when they talk about public safety. Who is going to let innocent children die because they don’t wear helmets? Safety is popular because it appears to be pure good without cost, but there is a cost. There is always a cost. People don’t adequately understand what they are giving up in exchange for that safety. To some greater or lesser extent, they are giving up freedom because freedom is risky, and when you give people the freedom to make bad choices, some will. The only way to prevent those risks, is to take away the freedom.
So who protects freedom? It is the entrepreneur. It is the energetic young student who wants to build the next great company. It is the creative and ambitious among us. They are the ones who desperately need freedom to be successful. They are the ones who bang their heads against bureaucratic walls as they try to achieve their dreams. They are the embodiment of the American dream, but their numbers are dwindling. Each time we take another step toward safety at the expense of freedom, we erect another wall – the wall that causes another freedom fighter to become disillusioned and give up. It is so easy to become infected with Comfortablitis. It is far easier to stop fighting and turn on the TV. There’ s bound to be a game on tonight.
Take the antidote before its too late. Turn off the TV and go change the world. It will require some risk, but risk is the only way you will discover who you really are, and can become. Next time someone tries to convince you that there is some great risk we need to save ourselves from, ask yourself, “at what cost?”