Discomfort Required

Belltown in springtime

I’m talking about the kind of discomfort that challenges us, by taking us exactly where we need to go.

Audre Lorde, activist and writer, once wrote, “The severe abstinence of the ascetic…is one not of self-discipline but of self-abnegation.” When I read this at the age of 21, the ground shifted beneath my feet. With one sentence, she challenged all my assumptions about strength and virtue.

Raised in a religion where fasting is a monthly duty, where a Victorian degree of chastity is celebrated, I had never considered abstinence from pleasure as anything but virtuous.

Lorde shattered all that. Her essay “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” challenges women to reclaim our bodies, our identities, our power–but above all, our desires.

She argues that women must not be afraid of our “strongest feelings,” our “deepest cravings.” That to never acknowledge these or give them expression is to deny ourselves.

Instead, we must find the courage to affirm our own lives. And we can do this only if we stop suppressing and start living. Which requires full feeling.

And honesty about those feelings. Especially our desires.

And that’s the thing–desire is scary stuff. Lorde is speaking largely of erotic desire, but she writes about how denying one form of desire clogs up everything else. One bit of denial throws the whole system off.

And desire is scary because it opens us up to hurt and rejection and failure.

I’ve always wanted to be someone brave and well spoken, who could get up and address crowds with Gandhi-like charisma and eloquence. I’ve desired full expression. To speak freely and often.

But I’m very shy. Crowds unnerve me. So I tell myself, Let it go. Scale it back. It just isn’t me.

But desire, Lorde assures me, is the wellspring of “all our deepest knowledge.” And the truth is–what you desire is who you are. Or maybe more accurately: who you can become, if you have the courage.

The best desires are exactly those which make us most uncomfortable. The mere thought, and we blush.

So I signed up for an acting class. The other day, alone up on the stage, I threw a chair over and screamed at an imagined adversary.

“Beautiful choices,” my acting teacher said.

I still don’t like it up there, on the stage. I can tell I probably never will. But I dive in anyway. Attack it. Because I want to be there–and because it leaves me uncomfortable. But my own discomfort tells me something important about the boundary between who I think I am and what I want. It points out to me precisely where I’m not being honest with myself.

Lorde is right. Our desires point true north. It’s not about indulgence and gratification–but about using desire to find out who we really are and what we’re truly capable of.

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