Argentine-American storyteller based in Appalachia

A Brief Note on Discomfort

When you force yourself to shut out the noise of the world, you may realize there is a lot to be grateful for.

A Brief Note on Discomfort
Photo by Sebastian Unrau / Unsplash

Every time I start to feel a little bit uncomfortable, I think about taking a dump in the woods.

Or rather having to take a dump in the woods.

I’m not crazy. Give it a try. Remember the last time the water in your shower took a little too long to heat up and you stepped in and flinched as the cold struck your chest. Or when the internet crashed in the middle of your favorite Spotify playlist while you swept the living room floor. Or when you had to park two minutes farther away from the entrance to the grocery store because some teenager in a Ford F-350 with a “Don’t Tread on Me” bumper sticker decided to take up two spots instead of one. Insert any of your most recent inconveniences.

Now think about taking a dump in the woods. All better?

What got me thinking about this was a moment in the shower this past Friday morning. I wasn’t at home. I was in a tiny home my father-in-law fixed up beside a marina on Norris Lake. For the past year-and-a-half, we’ve been working together on a memoir about fatherhood. With the busyness of the season—a toddler in the house, another baby on the way, two jobs, and volunteer commitments—finishing the second draft of the book had fallen down my priority list. So he offered me the place, whenever I wanted, to isolate and write in.

At the tiny home, I had no cell phone reception or WiFi service. I just had my laptop and a copy of The Catcher in the Rye for when I needed a break from typing or thinking. In the shower, I massaged shampoo into my hair and wondered why I hadn’t done this more often: disconnect from things. Get to writing alone—no Slack messages, Outlook and Asana notifications, or texts and phone calls interrupting me every five minutes. Working while watching leaves rustle in the trees or fish in the water instead of the windowless walls of my office.

If I had lived a hundred years ago, think of all the books I would’ve written by now. That’s what I told myself up there.

And then the thought hit me—the thought of having to take a dump in the woods. Because that isolation I enjoyed beside the lake was considerably limited. I wrote from a mattress in the loft and had access to a refrigerator and microwave to warm up the food my wife had packed me the night before. The home was insulated. There was a working toilet and two-ply toilet paper to clean myself with.

True isolation is taking baths in cold lake water. It is taking dumps beside a tree in the forest, wiping your butt with dried leaves, and then burying your turd in the dirt. And that was nothing like what I was living.

I guess I started writing this because I thought of this thing my campus minister used to say all the time. Majoring on minors. That’s what he said American Christians do. They focus on the little issues and ignore the bigger ones. And that’s what I have a tendency to do, beyond my faith in God. I get stuck in the mud focusing on the minutiae of life and not the bigger picture. I hardly ever stop to think; I just try to think while hurdling past the millions of other things my mind seems to want to turn its attention to.

About a decade ago, I watched a TED Talk from the writer A.J. Jacobs about his year of living according to the rules of the Old Testament of the Bible. It was a year of living completely inconvenienced: Jacobs couldn’t shave his beard, sit where a menstruating woman had sat on the subway, or wear cotton blend fabrics. He had embarrassing conversations every day and felt like an idiot a lot of the time. But, in the end, he learned a few lessons. One of them was gratitude.

“My behavior changed my thoughts,” Jacobs said in his talk. “I started to change my perspective to realize the hundreds of little things that go right in my life every day that I was taking for granted, instead of the few things that go wrong.”

Back in August, I wrote about my few awful weeks of flat tires and other car issues. How that had taught me to be grateful for the days when I got up, turned on the car, and there wasn’t a sensor going off. It’s a theme of my life. I've always struggled with the tension of gratitude. But I’m trying. I want to be grateful for all the ways I’m comfortable. I want to stop moaning about every inconvenience and hurdle I have to cross to get to wherever I’m going. My life, in the overall scheme of things, really is quite easy.

So I’ve made a decision. The next time Instagram crashes or my dishwasher starts acting up, I’m not going to declare my day a terrible failure. When I find a tear in my favorite shirt or the trunk won’t slam shut, I’m going to remind myself of one thing: at least I’m not taking a dump in the woods.

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Jamie Larson