Living in Morocco, a country that’s completely different from the one that I grew up in, I’m uncomfortable a lot. Almost all the time, really. I’m uncomfortable when someone asks me a question that I don’t understand, and I have to fumble to answer; it’s uncomfortable when I try to buy lightbulbs, but I don’t know where to go and so am redirected by four different shopkeepers five different times; I’m uncomfortable when the pathway to my house is crowded with sheep and I have to wade through them to get home.
At first, I misinterpreted being uncomfortable as being unhappy. Unsurprisingly, Morocco wasn’t a particularly fun place before I learned to make the important distinction between comfort and happiness. We’ve all been told about the benefits of stepping outside of your comfort zone since we were kids, but actually doing it—leaving the zone—is something different. Speaking from my experience in Morocco, I can say that being outside of my comfort zone has meant being unable to communicate particularly well, and feeling pretty dumb most of the time. I didn’t realize before I came here that easy communication with others and feeling (at least a little) intelligent was important to me. After discovering this, I initially spent a lot of time avoiding situations that would make me feel slow or unable to communicate. That, of course, was almost every situation.
It was another, more experienced Peace Corps volunteer who bestowed the piece of wisdom upon me that you don’t have to be comfortable to be happy. I let this piece of news roll around in my head for a while, and I started really examining the events in my life. Were they making me unhappy, or just uncomfortable? In almost every case, the answer was the latter. And so I made a concentrated effort to not let discomfort affect me; to separate the concepts of happiness and comfort, which I hadn’t even realized were closely intertwined in my mind. If a Moroccan didn’t understand what I was trying to say in a conversation, instead of dropping it and finding a way out of the conversation altogether, I started making an effort to push forward and make myself understood. I sought out social opportunities instead of avoiding them, and I looked for new activities to get involved in.
It hasn’t been easy to convince myself that I can be happy and uncomfortable at the same time, but it helps me when I focus on what has gone right in a given interaction. If I couldn’t make myself understood in a conversation, I would remind myself that at least my conversation partner and I were able to laugh about it, and so on. Maybe that girl made fun of my accent, but at least she understood what I was saying! Maybe only one person came to the activity I tried to throw, but I really got to know her better!
As a result, I’ve made more connections and become closer with people who had only been acquaintances previously. Just today, when I went to my local shopkeeper to buy eggs, he handed me a loaded-down plate of couscous for my husband and I to have for dinner. This is mostly just an example of Moroccan kindness, but I also like to chalk it up to the fact that I had been making more of an effort to prolong my conversations with that shopkeeper, and to practice my Arabic and my conversational skills beyond only asking for groceries.
It’s taken some willpower and a little bit of ignoring my basic instincts to become comfortable feeling uncomfortable, but the results have been worth it. There’s much more room for growth when you are able to branch out from what makes you comfortable, and there’s a lot less turmoil in doing so when you’re able to understand that discomfort and unhappiness are not the same things.