The Strengthening Power of Discomfort

Department: 

A friend of mine bicycled 2,700 miles this summer along the Continental Divide. In an article she wrote for the Fairbanks Daily News Miner (8/12/2018), she said, “When doing endurance races, I have a question I ask myself when I want to quit: ‘Am I in danger or just uncomfortable?’ If I’m just uncomfortable, I tell myself to keep going. Things will get better. And they usually do.”

My friend’s observation about the positive role that discomfort can play in athletics is similar to observations I have made in my work with participants in the Way of the Spirit program, which I direct. Learning to benefit from discomfort is an important aspect of spiritual growth.

I am a complete and enthusiastic cheerleader for spiritual discomfort – especially the discomfort that comes from engaging in non-dangerous “stretches” with others that reach across faith divisions, from exploring our different experiences of the Life and Power of the Holy. I grew up in a vibrant, social-justice-leaning, Catholic community. I have worshiped for thirty years among uprogrammed Quakers throughout North America, and I have enjoyed graduate studies in theology and ministry alongside a wide range of Christian denominations. My sincere appreciation for diverse religious paths runs deep.

Seven years ago, I founded Way of the Spirit, a program that is grounded in Quaker spirituality and enriched by ecumenical perspectives. Our fifteen-month journey of retreats and spiritual accompaniment invites participants to remain attentive to the movements of the Holy while exploring topics like: the inner journey, holistic prayer, spiritual practices, communal experiences of Spirit, forgiveness, discernment, spiritual accompaniment, and living out “leadings” of the Spirit in the world. As I’ve facilitated our gatherings, group calls, and online reflections, I have watched people stretch and grow.

Way of the Spirit includes both Evangelical Quakers and “Inner Light” Quakers who may feel highly allergic to the Bible and Christ-centered terminology. Participants come from home churches and meetings that practice various forms of worship – from quiet waiting worship to heartfelt sermons and hymns. Participants also express different theological perspectives, from Buddhist or Hindu traditions, and Jesus’s Way. Most of them have expressed fear of “going there” with these “other” folks. Growth of the soul requires courage.

So, now for a personal confession: When I began working with Evangelical colleagues in Way of the Spirit, I discovered some of my own “hot buttons” around God-language. I sometimes cringe inwardly when I encounter male pronouns for the Divine. Yes, I’ve learned that for others, God as “He” is intimate and endearing. Even so, I recognize some “baggage” I carry about this, am still tending to that inner woundedness. I am encouraged to know that this work is helpful and necessary. It allows me to hear with spiritual ears when I listen to other faithful people describe the ways they relate to the Mystery.

Similarly, an Evangelical guest presenter surprised me with a term that’s a “hot button” for him. When this Friend hears the expression “the Divine,” he told me he “usually has something to say about it.” For this Friend, who is a Biblical scholar, “the Divine” is an academic expression, aiming to be objective and dispassionate. It connotes “not involved,” distant, and not in relationship. I had to laugh when I heard this, since for me, the expression “The Divine” feels more inviting than the term “God.” For me, the term “God” implies sectarian limits. What potential for misunderstanding!

Way of the Spirit employs a model developed by Eric Law (Inclusion: Making Room for Grace, 2000) to foster “stretch” in listening and conversation among people who use very different languages about the Holy. To understand this model, visualize two concentric circles as “boundaries” around our different comfort levels in groups. Inside the inner circle is the “safe zone,” where we are completely at ease with the other people in the group and where we interact with others easily. The people in this zone are likely to look and sound a lot like “us.” We belong.

Outside both circles is the “Freak Out Zone,” where the “others” are so different from our own expectations or ideals that it feels dangerous to interact with them. People in this zone provoke in us a “get me outta here” flight-or-flight reaction. 

The third area in this diagram, the space between the inner and outer circles, is called the “Grace Margin.” It is neither the safe zone nor the fear zone. When we cultivate the Grace Margin together, we can intentionally lean into “discomfort,” which allows us to stretch and grow. We can stay with a situation that may feel a bit unsafe and see what the Spirit might do with us.

In our Way of the Spirit retreats, we begin by working together to articulate our group’s Grace Margin. We agree to community guidelines that name specific ways that we will respect each other. We agree to speak in our own language about God. We agree to listen to other languages with openness, to seek to “hear beyond words” or hear the Spirit where the words come from.

Because our semantics don’t all “add up” to a systematic theology, this approach is quite counter-cultural: We aim to achieve mutual understanding and appreciation, not agreement. We choose to allow our differences to exist as we listen and learn. We are not called together to debate doctrine, or convince anyone of anything. Again and again, we come back to stating our willingness to tolerate ambiguity.

In Way of the Spirit, we expect discomfort as we dialogue. Different participants are challenged in different ways. For example, one participant brought with her a very negative impression of spiritual healing from a background in science and years of experience working in the mental health profession. When a guest presenter on retreat spoke of his experiences in prayer and healing, the participant flared into intense push-back. “You seem sincere,” she told the presenter, “But I’ve had to protect vulnerable people from ‘healers’ who claim they can perform special cures that aren’t based in science.” I was worried that she might bolt for the door.

What happened instead was that the two of them talked and listened. The presenter shared his own scientific doubts about faith healing, and the participant decided to “put her inability to believe on hold” and to “tolerate the ambiguity.” Eventually, she allowed the presenter to help with a shoulder pain she’d been feeling for months. She experienced the presenter’s healing Gift directly. Two weeks later, she wrote that her shoulder pain “was relieved through his gift almost immediately and is now gone. I sit with this in wonder and gratitude. . . How marvelous are your works, O God!”

Way of the Spirit challenges other participants to stretch beyond the habitual adversarial orientations they carry in their daily efforts to heal the world. We need these Friends who serve as our prophets, who feel called by the Holy to speak out about societal chaos, injustice, and the groanings of the earth itself. Yet our program asks these Friends to enter the Grace Margin as a space without adversaries, a space beyond “us and them.” As uncomfortable as it might be, we ask them to listen deeply and give up planning and strategizing for a time. We ask them to trust the Spirit working in and among us to reveal what we all need to learn and grow.

People of sincere faith are called to stretch in response to the world’s aching needs: racism, sexism, capitalism, poverty, and the degradation of the natural world. Several lifetimes’ worth of needs! It’s time for Friends to stretch into discomfort for the long haul and to keep moving forward guided by the Spirit.   ~~~

Learn more about Way of the Spirit – details, photos, alumni comments, and online application for our 2019 retreat cycle – at https://goodnewsassoc.org/spirit/. The application deadline is January 15th for the retreat cycle beginning February 15-18, 2019.

Christine Betz Hall founded and directs Way of the Spirit: Retreats and Learning for Compassionate Action. She serves as an adjunct faculty member at Seattle University School of Theology and Ministry and is a member of Whidbey Island Friends Meeting (NPYM).