BRAD CLEMONS: Is comfort sapping our potential?

What if Magellan had Halo 3 and YouTube?
Monday, July 4, 2011 | 12:00 a.m. CDT

I acknowledge that most of our great pleasures in the present came from the pursuits of comfort in the past. It is said that “Necessity is the mother of invention,” but I’m pretty sure the heated toilet seat was not a necessity. I think it would be more accurate to say, “Comfort is the drunk uncle of invention.”

This conversation could have easily happened at some point not long ago.


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“You know, what we need right now is a bigger TV and a rolling fridge.”

“What if we just sit closer and use a cooler?”

“But that’s so inconvenient, and we don’t want to be scootin’ around a heavy ol’ cooler, right? Think of the floor. Now go get your catheter – I put the Bourne trilogy in the disk changer so we don’t have to get up.”

From the pursuit of comfort we have conquered many of our infirmities, limitations and unnecessary inconveniences. That’s good. But my concern is that we will win the war on boredom.

Many of our greatest advances in the last couple of centuries have come from boredom or restless discomfort. The prodigious growth in sports, music, electronics and comedy are examples. Think of how bored a person has to be to dream up Silly Putty or synchronized swimming. Think of Gallagher. That’s bored. You know we would not have YouTube today if its inventors had already had access to idiots embarrassing themselves and free copyrighted materials. Those geniuses scratched an itch, and now the rest of us need for nothing.

We have to see the dichotomy here. It’s the pursuit of comfort that has produced great advancements. As Adam Smith said, “By pursuing (man’s) own interest, he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.” However, the actual attaining of comfort is quite detrimental to human progress.

I wonder how many of our greatest men in history would have never reached greatness if they had had our technology.

First of all, there wouldn't be an America. Ben Franklin might have had his own online eBay store, and that's about it. No inventions. All his political insight would be wrapped up into one very elaborate blog with unregulated spelling.

Lost forever would be the example of integrity (through censorship) we have from George Washington. The only historical document we'd have would be the transcripts from his dad's text messages. "Geo, did you cut down the cherry tree?  What do mean, you can't tell a lie? How dumb do you think I am? Well, then you should have put the smiley face at the end. How was I to know you were being honest? You did cut down a tree, for heaven's sake. Virtue is not your card right now. Watch it, boy! Don't get that font with me! Don't text back to me! George? Text to me when I text to you!!”

Yes, Mr. Washington would use complete sentences when texting.

We probably wouldn't have even had a revolution from England because half of the framers would be recluses who would spend their evenings on Thomas Jefferson would have died from sleep deprivation during a female rapper marathon on MTV.

On a broader scale, Leonardo da Vinci would have gone to community college because it offered an AutoCAD class, and Napolean would have been a mere cyber-bully once banned from Facebook who then returned, undetected by the filters, added lots of old friends who were scared to ignore his requests and then continued cyber-bullying.

Most British literature would be half the length because today's publishers don't pay by the word, and Dickens, for one, would refuse to put a vampire or wizard in every stinking book just to get people to read it. Most poetry would be absent because of anti-depressants.

How surreal it is to think of these historical monsters lounging on a couch with Doritos and playing Halo 3. You would want to go up and smack the controller out of their hands and say, "Get up, you losers! Don't you know you're Magellan? And you, don't you know you're Archimedes? Don't you know you're the ones? It's you! What are you doing just sitting here being all normal?" But then, like a sad nightmare, they wouldn't have a clue what you were talking about because they wouldn’t really be themselves nor have any vision for themselves. It would be a whole new alternate reality.

So what about us? Because of our comfort, what are we not doing that we could be? What wicked and disappointing alternate reality are we sitting in? Maybe I'm Brad Clemons, and I don't even know it. Maybe you are you, and you don’t know it.

The state of comfort is the phantom tax that saps our will and caps our ability.  There isn’t much that we can’t access with our fingers in just a few seconds. That instant and constant gratification, brought like a finger pushes the little button on a morphine drip, leaves us with little incentive to do anything productive. That is what worries me.

If it weren’t for greed, the current level of apathy and distractedness would all but extinguish any hopes of curing cancer.  Plus, the thought of this being the plateau of fashion and music is depressing. While it’s possible that rap music would be replaced by something even worse, the odds are low, and, thus, I’m willing to take the chance.

If we agree with Henry David Thoreau that “Moral reform is the effort to throw off sleep,” then we have to wake up.  Now, there is a really good chance that he was full of crap. He probably only wrote that because he was really bored in his cabin for two years, but the idea stands.

Brad Clemons lives in Columbia. He wishes to turn himself over to the courts, guilty of having killed time.

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Eric Niewoehner July 4, 2011 | 11:46 a.m.

Fun article. Anyone who quotes Adam Smith and Thoreau in one article deserves my attention.

One mission trip to Nicaragua can transform your perspective on the true meaning of "comfort." In the US, it is surreal. As I see that in the debate that rages around our household, whether we should have three cell phones with texting or not. And each month I look at a phone bill that bumps $180 so we all can have cell phones and high speed internet. Then I consider the time in 1982 when I paid a $12 phone bill!

One consideration is to look at our consumer debt. Since 1990, US consumer debt soared 60%. It has dropped about 30% since the depression started in 2008. The savings rate is around 3-4%, while in so-called "poorer" populations, such as China, has exceeded 20% in the past decade. This is our "comfort index," which demonstrates that we, as a society, are pursuing comfort without a corresponding level of productivity, and with a snap-shot, narcissistic view of life that everything we must have we must have it now.

(Report Comment)
Brett Barton July 4, 2011 | 12:14 p.m.

Funny and contemplative! My type of column. I think I need to spend a little more time just staring at Perche Creek and then who knows...maybe all those coveted wordsmith skills are just lying dormant -- supressed by the distractions of round-the-clock entertainment.

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Brad Clemons July 5, 2011 | 8:36 a.m.


You're absolutely right. Perspective is essential. I was never thankful for grass until I went to Juarez, Mexico and I was never thankful for radio or cell phones until I drove between Amarillo and Albuquerque. But what happens to me is that those trips just make me love my comforts more. I'm a complete hypocrite in some of the articles - where I just preach to myself out loud. If I remember right, I wrote that article while listening to Pandora and in the brief window between swimming with my kids and rushing home for Little Caesar's. And I refused to write yesterday because I didn't have Wi-fi available and I took it personally.

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