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Braving discomfort

| Thursday, August 29, 2019

As a newly found yoga devotee I’m definitely not ready to call myself a yogi there are many aspects of the practice that befuddle me. I doubt I’ll ever comfortably accomplish “happy baby” pose, I regularly struggle to position my deep lunge correct on the first try and I constantly wonder who’s ever seen a cow arch its back. As a newbie to the ancient art, I’m still noticing all the little ins and outs of the exercise, always on high alert for new ways I’ll be exposed as an imposter. 

One aspect that never fails to grab my attention is the practice of setting an intention. Setting an intention means choosing a focus in which to ground your practice on the mat and in the life you lead after. At my most recent yoga session, my focus was to be brave. I wanted to choose the heavy weights, opt for the challenging modifications, sit closer to the front row put myself in a position where I could fail, but where I could also flourish. As I start a new school year, move into a new dorm room and live with a new roommate, I’ve decided to keep this as my mantra for my endeavors: Be brave.

This summer, I was a counselor for Notre Dame’s Summer Scholars Program. The camp concluded with a dance on the final night. Ever the enthusiastic dancer, I spent most of the evening shimmying my way around the Legends dance floor. I boogied with abandon, not caring what other people thought of my moves. I didn’t even hesitate when I was thrust in the middle of a dance circle, normally my personal nightmare. I was being brave.

Until I saw a boy make fun of another kid. Until I didn’t do anything about it. Until I wasn’t brave when it counted.

It was toward the end of the night. I was getting my groove on with some of my shyer scholars, encouraging them to embrace their inner silliness and let loose. In a nearby group, a few students were doing just that. Admittedly, they probably weren’t the coolest kids in the program and the boy whose carefree moves caught my eye was a bit gawky. I’d noticed earlier that he was a little socially awkward, a bit of an oddball among hordes of 16-year-olds all desperately trying to fit in. I admired the boy’s free spirit, though, I was horrified to realize that his unapologetic self-expression — his bravery — was being used as fodder for cruel jokes among the other students. As our self-confident hero flung his arms with a joy found only through unrestrained dancing, a suave “cool boy” mocked him, mirroring the dancer’s moves with a jeering expression on his face. 

I should have said something.

But what if the boy wasn’t trying to be mean? What if that bully was really a buddy? This hopeful theory was quickly dismissed. The cool kid’s frequent knowing grins at a group of fawning girls confirmed this jest was mean-spirited.

I should have said something.

But what if that dancing boy didn’t know he was being made fun of? What if he thought the cool boy was his friend? What if I made everything worse?

I should have said something.

But it would have been awkward. It would have been uncomfortable. For me. For the boy I’d have to talk to. For the girls I’d have scolded for laughing. It wouldn’t be fun, and they wouldn’t be happy with me. What if they hated me?

That day I forgot my bravery. I rationalized that my passivity was the right thing to do, that it would be better for everyone at hand, but ultimately, I know I chose the easy way out. I traded another person’s dignity for my own personal comfort. And the reality of that decision still scares me.

While visiting with family friends, I found myself in some awkward conversations. Although I truly believe they are good-hearted people, these friends hail from a less diverse part of the country than my progressive home of California, and I quickly realized that many of their attitudes toward new ideas and people different than them were based off of unfair assumptions.

I should have said something.

But I know their outdated attitudes came from a place of ignorance, not hate. But their comments were so quick, so fleeting, it was hard to tell if the incident was merely poor phrasing or if the attitude I perceived was intentional.

I should have said something.

But I’m so much younger than them. I have no authority. But I’d have to see them at countless future gatherings. But they’ll think I think they’re racist. But I know what they’re saying isn’t right. I know the truth. Isn’t that enough?

I should have said something.

But it’d be uncomfortable.

My high school cross country coach used to tell us that people like to believe someday, when they’re in really good shape, running will be easy. They think that running doesn’t hurt the top athletes. That they too could run a four-minute mile if it was as comfortable for them as it is for the Olympians.

“That’s bogus,” he’d tell us.

The difference between a great runner and a mediocre one isn’t that the greats can run fast easily, it’s that they’re used to running fast when it’s hard. They’re used to being in pain. They’re at peace with being uncomfortable, because they know it’s worth it. Very few people run marathons and finish by announcing, “That was painless!” These people experience the same pain as everyone else, but they push through. They persevere. They know the discomfort is coming and they don’t brace against it, they embrace it. They use that discomfort as an opportunity to do what others won’t, to rise above when others don’t.

In the same way, when we see situations that need our attention, we cannot turn a blind eye. When we hear words that grate our ears, we cannot stay quiet. When we need to do what’s right, we must not simply do what’s popular. 

It’s going to be uncomfortable. It’s going to be awkward correcting our friends for using outdated slang. It’s going to be unpleasant having conversations about why certain actions aren’t inclusive. I get it. I’m extremely non-confrontational. I’ve never used my horn once while driving! But our cars have horns for a reason. If we don’t honk in the moments where we nearly get hit, how will that reckless driver realize he’s putting people in danger? If we won’t push through that running stitch on our recovery run, what will happen when we reach a hill on mile 13? If we can’t say something when the people we love misspeak, how will we find the courage to say something to the bully on the dance floor? We must practice being uncomfortable in the easy moments, even when we can rationalize a problem away, otherwise we’ll never be able to stomach discomfort when it matters the most.

This school year, I’ve set an intention to be brave. And the bravest thing I can do is choose to be uncomfortable.


Julianna Conley loves cereal, her home state of California and the em dash. A sophomore in Pasquerilla East, if Julianna can’t be found picnicking on North Quad, she can be reached for comment at [email protected] and on Twitter @JuliannaLConley.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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