By Michael Rossmann
I recently took a cross-country bus ride that was anything but comfortable. After those in my row had experienced blood — the bus moved so recklessly that a man was thrown up in air, hitting his head against the luggage rack, and gushing blood just a few feet from me — and a whole lot of sweat — this was a bus without air conditioning during summer — I laughed to myself that we had nearly completed the trifecta of blood, sweat, and tears. And then night came and babies started crying because they could not sleep. Perfect.
But something else happened on that bus trip. After many of us first vented our frustration in our shared misery, several of us laughed at just how ridiculous it was. And we bonded. We did not enjoy comfort on that ride, though we started to enjoy the contact with those who were previously strangers but who now seemed to be fellow soldiers in a battle together.
This was not an isolated experience. I’ve amassed thousands of miles “flying Greyhound” across the U.S., and while a plane can get me to my destination much faster and more comfortably, it also tends to be far more forgettable. I remember very little of the small talk I have made on countless flights, though I vividly remember many of the characters I have met on buses: the driver who regaled me with stories from the road for six hours, the 18-year-old kid preparing to be deployed to Iraq, the man who told me TMI (too much information) about his love life.
This is similar to how I appreciate staying with a family rather than sleeping at a hotel when I am on the road. Having my space free from disturbances at a hotel is certainly comforting, whereas staying with a family I previously did not know can lead to some uncomfortable moments — especially if they are not coffee drinkers and I’m unable to get my fix in the morning!
Still, I almost always find those stays with families to be far more satisfying. I might feel awkward staying in a room decorated with the mementos of another person’s life, though I am frequently amazed by the goodness and generosity of complete strangers and often leave a city with a richer experience than if I had stayed in the hotel. The joy of forming relationships through shared contact outweighs the possible discomfort.
Of course, we are human beings — not machines — and most of us cannot deal with constant discomfort. At times, we need simple pleasures. After living in Tanzania for some time now, I would give a kidney if I could get some deep dish pizza or simply blend in rather than sticking out as one who is obviously an outsider.
That being said, always choosing the easy or comfortable option might not be what brings us the most satisfaction, most especially because the comfortable route frequently reduces the amount of contact with other people — beautiful, hurting, hilarious humanity.
When I read in the gospels about thousands following Jesus for days, I often forget that this was a time without air conditioning, deodorant and public restrooms. This would have been miserable! At the same time, it’s apparent that those hanging on Jesus’ every word were not in misery; despite difficult conditions, they could not get enough of who he was to them. Contact with Jesus made all other matters insignificant.
It’s not surprising that for thousands of years people have found going on pilgrimage as a privileged way to connect with God. We can still find God in comfortable places, though when many things are out of my control like they are when on pilgrimage, then I’m more likely to let God be God and open myself up to those who enter my life.
I’m not suggesting that we start clothing ourselves in camel’s hair and eating locusts and wild honey à la John the Baptist. By no means is being uncomfortable inherently holier. Still, in choosing how we spend our time, where we stay, or how we travel, we might ask ourselves: how might this promote or prohibit my contact with other children of God? Could this lead to new friendships, spontaneous conversations, or shared laughter?
People can be annoying, and when you pack many on a public bus, we can be a sweaty lot.
When you share blood, sweat, tears with others, however, you certainly know you’re not alone in this world. Contact with others — even when it is uncomfortable — is what really brings us joy.
(Michael Rossmann, SJ is a Jesuit scholastic currently teaching at Loyola High School in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He is a 2003 graduate of Regina Catholic Education Center in Iowa City. )
This article was originally published in America, Feb. 25, 2013, and is reprinted with the permission of America Press, Inc., americamagazine.org.