I still remember the first time I returned to America and sank into bed.
There was no thunk! I forgot that beds could be so soft. I hadn’t realized how much my own culture valued physical comfort until I learned that some cultures could replace “pillow-top” with “cloth-covered plywood” and still call it a mattress. That wasn’t the only comfort I had forgotten: I also sank into couches and ran bare toes through thick carpets. The towels were dryer-soft and even the toilet paper was plush.
When we return to our home culture it’s often obvious how comfort can become an idol. We quickly tally all the comforts we live without. I mean, toilet paper so soft it could be a baby pillow? Is that really necessary? I simultaneously idealize and scorn matching guest towels and kitchens filled with gadgets. Our possessions don’t look like much in comparison. But let’s not kid ourselves: living in a foreign country with ugly towels certainly doesn’t make us exempt from idolatry.
Likely our houses will be a little different than those around us, reflecting our unique ideas of beauty, comfort, and home. But if our homes become such a stark contrast from our surrounding world that our local friends feel uncomfortable, if going home feels like retreating into “mini-America” (or insert your home country), if we find ourselves reluctant to leave the safe-zone we have created, then likely our comforts have become too important. Our quest for comfort can hinder our calling, no matter where we live.
On the other hand, I think that austerity – lack of comfort – can become an idol as well. There were times when I felt a little bit holier just from sitting on my bench-like couch. It’s tempting to “show off” what we put up with – the cement floor, the window fixed with tape and chopsticks, or the ginormous bug in our pantry. We want people to say, “Wow, they are really roughing it. I could never do that.”
We feel a little guilty about the nicer things we have, because I’m pretty sure “live in a one room grass hut” is one of the primary tenants of our line of work. If people see that we have a comfy couch, they might feel we’re not quite cut out for the job. Where is the suffering and self-denial? When I first moved to China I felt guilty about my hot shower, my throw pillows, and the pictures on my wall. They all seemed to be signs of my weakness.
Maybe we fear judgment because sometimes (I admit it), we judge others in the same way. How easy it is to judge our neighbors, our teammates, our fellow workers by their comforts or lack there-of. “Wow, so-and-so never buys imported foods,” we say with admiration (they must be more dedicated than us). Or “Can you believe they have that super nice rug/fridge/tv?” we say with a tint of censure (they must be less dedicated than us).
Over time I have realized that creating a certain level of comfort in our homes is healthy. During my first few years I was reluctant to bring treasured possessions, afraid they would get lost or broken. Better to keep them safely in America until I returned. Now we have brought over the handmade Christmas stockings, our favorite books, a few special pieces of pottery, and the toys saved from our childhood. This is not just someplace we are staying for a while: it is our home.
In the end, it’s not really about our comforts. It’s about our heart’s response to comforts. Do our comforts reflect our healthy desires for home? Do we cling to the security we derive from our comforts, or do we swell with pride over our lack of comfort? Do we compare ourselves to others around us and back home with envy or judgment? Or do we focus on living within our own convictions and responding appropriately to our own surroundings?
Do you lean toward clinging to comfort or proving yourself through austerity? How do you keep a balance in your life and home?