The Pursuit of Discomfort

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It was at about the time, early on, when I found myself on the metro sweating at NBA-player levels in the October heat, the aroma of coconut oil from the hair of a fellow voyager wafting into my nostrils, while I rested my elbow the only place I could (on a stout Bengali’s bald spot) and a smartly uniformed schoolgirl finished her homework on my back, that I came to a realization of sorts. That realization almost didn’t make it through to conscious thought, since my conscious thought was then consumed with the peppery body odors that engulfed the damp, humid air and simultaneously focusing on my right pocket, where my wallet laid (why was I worried about my wallet? Someone could have stolen my pants and I wouldn’t have noticed.) The realization was this: I was not very comfortable, and furthermore that this period of my life in Calcutta was not about to be very comfortable.

As I pondered this thought, and its ramifications for my quality of life, some anonymous being crushed my toe. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see their hands moving ritually: hand touching eyes, then heart, then eyes again, begging forgiveness of the gods for touching a piece of divinity (me!) with their accidentally disrespectful feet. Across the cabin, I heard various utterances of “Baap re Baap” and “Oh, Baba,” the Bengali ways of expressing a wide gamut of emotions: surprise, excitement, or (in this case) pain. My laptop, held at my side, was being pressure-cooked by the collective strength of hundreds of gluteal muscles. I was afraid it’d break in half. I held my breath, waiting for the next stop, until the open doors spat out me and twenty other sufferers onto the platform.

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Men bathing

 

Jain temple
Jain temple

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Street cricket match on India's Republic Day
Street cricket match on India’s Republic Day

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Comfort in Calcutta

The metro is not the only source of discomfort in Calcutta.[1],[2],[3] As I write this, we are exiting the month or so of positively Mediterranean weather here: the breeze is gentle off of the Hugli River, the humidity low, the sun shimmers. Walking around in parks during the day becomes a feature of the average Calcutta resident’s life, and even the smog seems to have lessened (or perhaps that’s just an olfactory illusion).

There are, though, hushed whispers of the impending doom from denizens. “The Calcutta heat is coming,” they mutter ominously, “just wait till you experience that.” I wonder how bad it could be, how unbearable it could possibly get. Could it be worse than how it was in October or November? Each day, after the commute to work, I’d spend an hour in front of the office A.C. drying my soaked shirt. How could the deadly vortex of heat and humidity possibly be more uncomfortable than that?

Mark Twain, upon visiting Calcutta, wrote:

I believe that in India ‘cold weather’ is merely a conventional phrase and has come into use through the necessity of having some way to distinguish between weather which will melt a brass door-knob and weather which will only make it mushy– “Following the Equator”

To be fair to the rest of India, Twain hadn’t visited Darjeeling yet. He’d only seen Calcutta.

Transport, too, is a huge part of the composition of why Calcutta is so uncomfortable. Metal boxes on wheels barely stuck together (the small ones called autos, the large ones buses) rumble through the congested traffic, heaving and huffing while taking me to my destination. In the past few months, I’ve been on buses that have caught on fire (I hacked until the smoked out bus mercifully stopped after ten minutes of driving, and the conductor got out, filled up a bucket of water, and poured it on the source of our problems before getting the bus moving again) and had live chickens on them (according to the strict rules of this bus, they were only allowed to be in the back where I happened to be sitting).

It’s a menagerie of different types of pollution. Regular air pollution not your style? How about the light and sound varieties? Noise is constant, the car horns blare at eardrum rupturing levels on the streets and no place is safe. Thus far, soundproofing has not been developed as a concept in West Bengali home and office construction. Before dawn, the local mosque blares the adhan, the call to prayer[4], on the minaret’s loudspeakers, then at 5:30AM the laundry man bleats, sheep-like, across the neighborhood in a droning, nasal pitch. Even late at night, young Bengalis are usually either protesting for/against the Communist Party or are celebrating a puja for one of many goddesses (either way the M.O. is the same: they load into the back of a large truck and beat drums while driving around residential neighborhoods). Comfort is nary to be found in silence.

Calcutta life ebbs and flows in waves of intense comfort and discomfort. It oscillates between python-level constriction and open-field freedom, with little in between. This dichotomy is there not only in temperatures, but also in the difference between concussive busses and solid ground. It’s there in the difference between government offices, with forced double-speak and gentle massaging of big egos (and smaller anatomies), and anywhere not a government office. It’s there in the congestion of the City and the serenity of the Wetlands. The highs of comfort are assuaging not despite the lows of extreme discomfort but because of them. And those highs of comfort are hard to come by.

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At the Dakshineswar Kali Temple

 

More at the Kali Temple
More at the Kali Temple

 

The ghat outside of the temple where the ritual bathing is
The ghat outside of the temple where there’s bathing in the Hugli River

 

At Byloom's Cafe
At Byloom’s Cafe

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Tell me, have you these in your houses? Or have you only comfort, and the lust for comfort, that stealthy thing that enters the house a guest, and becomes a host, and then a master? – Kahlil Gibran, Houses

 

But is achieving a state of comfort really the end goal? Comfort is a pleasurable state. It’s a state that we can luxuriate in, one that delights the senses. We each have a vision of what makes us comfortable, whether it is a vacation resort or a cozy home. And we often pursue material things to get us to that state of ultimate comfort: the massage chair, the television in even higher pixilation and even more dimensions, clothes and apparel. All these things will give us comfort, we logically assume, and pleasure, which leads to the exalted goal of happiness.

But ultimately, pleasure is a state that is never truly satisfying. Like the Greek myth of Tantalus, thirsty and hungry, stuck in an eternal hell of a fruit tree with low hanging fruit and water in a bowl that will always move away from his grasp, if we pursue comfort and pleasure we will never really achieve that end state of rest we seek. Any state of comfort ultimately lasts for only a short while before discomfort begins to infect that state again. After some time, disgust settles in and we must sprint to another pleasure to be satisfied.

Pleasure is contingent upon time, upon its object, upon the place. It is something that changes of nature.

Matthew Ricard, Biochemist and Buddhist Monk

And I would argue, more radically, that pleasure doesn’t really lead to real happiness. Hedonists would say pleasure is the same thing as happiness, but I disagree; taking pleasure in things and attaining comfort is only but a part of real, lasting and true happiness. And if we don’t reevaluate our definition of happiness, and our pursuit of it, we’ll be doomed to the “hedonic treadmill”[5]forever.

The idea of happiness as pleasure has even been embedded in fundamental economic methodology (until relatively recently): a 1920 text by economist Alfred Marshall states “the utility” that is “taken to be correlative to Desire or Want…the measure is found in the price which a person is willing to pay for the fulfillment or satisfaction of his desire.” According to the theory, “utils” as measured by consumer choices reveal how happy a person is. The truth, though, is what we purchase (especially material goods) give us a temporary boost of happiness that soon fades as we return to our level state of happiness.

If we take the happiness research seriously, most of the standard rationales for economic growth, technological progress, and improved social policy simply evaporate.- Geoffrey Miller, evolutionary psychologist

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A Warm Gun

There is an alternative, though, to this pursuit of happiness as the pursuit of pleasure, as we currently see it. Counterintuitive as it may be to not pursue things that make us feel good for our happiness, we do it all the time. Nobody runs a marathon, has children, or fights for their country out of pursuit of pleasure. These actions are in search of something bigger usually, something the ancient Greeks called eudaimonia, or “flourishing”. This, eudaimonia, is what we should be seeking[6], a more fleshed out notion of happiness than the one we have now. The word itself comes from eu, good, daemon, spirit: the good life.

If true happiness is really tied to the notion of human flourishing, we can look beyond the pursuit of pleasure (which includes seeking comfort and material things for the sake of themselves). The word includes the notions of excellence, virtue, meaning and even citizenry. Sometimes it means sacrificing our own immediate pleasures for a greater good (for our values). And we instinctively understand this. There’s a famous Matrix-style thought experiment the philosopher Robert Nozick thought up:

Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes  attached  to  your  brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life’s experiences?- Anarchy, State, and Utopia

Most of us wouldn’t choose to plug into the machine, despite it providing the maximal quantity of pleasure over a life. We’re not just after pleasure. Somehow, we’d want to actually do the things we do, Nozick argues; this is a key prerequisite for life being meaningful.

I don’t take a completely anti-hedonism stance. I take pleasure where pleasure is due: in a cold mango lassi on a sweltering day, in the many layers of flavor in a kati roll, or in enjoying the luxury of the swanky Oberoi hotel. But attachment to this comfort, and confusion of this comfort as the end goal of our lives, is a grave misjudgment. The truth is that things that aren’t pleasurable are also a part of a flourishing human existence. Living with unpleasantness (like thinking about ideas we disagree with, encountering death, being in a place where you don’t know the language, and, yes, uncomfortable rides on the metro) is one of the most human things we can do. And dealing with discomfort is what often leads to open-mindedness, to artistic creativity, to personal and societal growth (there’s a reason it’s called the comfort zone). And a lot of times, a little discomfort leads to a more meaningful and fascinating time.[7] Comfort and pleasure? Those, for me, are secondary.

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[1] Rabindra Sadan is the station that deposits the most metro riders on the way back. As we approach it, there is usually a gradual rise in murmuring among the populace: it’s time to crush or be crushed.  I imagine that the metro should be studied by Realist scholars of International Relations: like nations in a dog eat dog world, the riders tenuously make alliances not out of love but out of desperation and mutual advantage in the dogged, single-minded pursuit of surviving the ordeal.

[2] While I complain about the metro, I do have to proclaim my love for it. It’s a deeply democratic and populist form of transportation, where you’re as likely to see expensive power suits as dreadlocked Israelis, a rocker with spiked hair as a round-faced, large-eyed older Bengali lady clad in red and white bangles that symbolize marriage.

[3] I’ve taken to writing haikus to keep me sane during the daily commute. A sampling:

Relief: just squeezed in

Oh no! I’m on the wrong side

Life on the Metro

***

Window jammed, monsoons

Guess I’ll just get soaked, thanks

Life on the Cal Bus

***

Bag on his shoulders?

No it’s not, it’s a chicken

Life on the Cal Bus

[4] My first response was being naïvely annoyed, but I’ve become deeply appreciative of the call to prayer. It’s beautiful, complex, and reminds one to tap into their highest selves at regular intervals throughout the day.

[5] We notice differences and become dissatisfied with some items and some classes of goods. This treadmill effect has been investigated by Danny Kahneman and his peers when they studied the psychology of what they call hedonic states. People acquire a new item, feel more satisfied after an initial boost, then rapidly revert to their baseline of well-being. –Nassim Nicholas Taleb in “Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder”

[6] Maybe the word happiness itself is tripping us up in the pursuit of it, and perhaps it is better left as a byproduct of searching for something else. It seems happiness is one of those things that the harder we try for it, the more difficult it is to attain.

[7] I visited the Maha Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, the largest single gathering of human beings on earth. An estimated 80-100 million Hindus travel to Allahabad to take a dip into the meeting place of the three holiest rivers. The scene overwhelming in every way; an impromptu city of tents is set up for the voyagers along the banks of the Ganga (with 40,000 toilets). Kumbh Mela occurs once every six years, and this Maha Kumbh Mela was the most auspicious in 144 years. The myth of Kumbh Mela is based on an enormous battle between the gods and demons over the heavenly nectar that came from the churning of the earth. It states that four drops fell from the nectar onto earth (the four locations that rotate hosting Kumbh Mela).

Expecting to go just to see the chaos and see a sight I’d never see again, I ended up with a little bit more than I bargained for. Hunter Gros, a friend and travelling companion, tells it better than I ever could (in poem form): “Here Comes The Kumbh”

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60 square kilometers of campsites
60 square kilometers of campsites

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Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and raised in Cleveland, OH, Pranav has been involved with health policy, bioethics, and global health throughout his time at Ohio State. There, he helped found the third national chapter of Project Nicaragua and participated in multiple service trips to the rural mountain town of Rancho Grande for initiatives in nutrition, education, and agriculture. Pranav also helped found the Bioethics Society and participated in Yale's bioethics summer program, researching the ethics of GM crop usage in the developing world. He interned in Canadian Parliament for Dr. Carolyn Bennett, the Liberal Health Critic, working with the Health, Development, and Food and Agriculture profiles, co-organizing conferences, and writing nationally televised addresses. In addition, Pranav has traveled to India to investigating eye-care health networks in Andhra Pradesh and writing his Honors Thesis on the political context for health system reform in the state.

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