In my adolescent years I spent a good chunk of each winter waterfowl hunting in the farm and ranchlands of Western Idaho. I loved it, probably mostly for the time with my father and our bird dog Cheska. Hunting gave my dad and I a shared activity to connect over at an age where connection through words and ideas was challenging. Cheska was a beautiful Chesapeake and Black Labrador mix. My mom always said it looked like she woke up every morning and put on mascara referencing the black highlights around her eyes that stood out in contrast to her lighter Chesapeake muzzle. Her intensity for water in general, and pursuing birds in water specifically, was something to behold. Being a winter season, waterfowl hunting involves a healthy amount of exposure to cold and often wet weather. Compounding this is the fact that hunting ducks and geese is much more sedentary than other types of Western hunting. Spot and stalk deer hunting involves covering significant country on foot, and upland bird hunting borders on mountain running; chasing a dog who is chasing birds up and down steep terrain. This was the one type of hunting I did that lacked the exertion to produce extra body heat. I am not exactly drawn to sitting still, and even less so when it is cold and wet outside.
My dad’s hunting days are mostly behind him now and Cheska passed on long ago. I have gravitated more to upland dogs in my adult years. Waterfowl hunting has become largely a memory to me, ironically a warm memory. When I find myself reminiscing on those days, it strikes me that much of it was a study in subtle discomfort. Our hunting spot was about a seventy-five-minute drive from home, so a lot of early dark morning departures were required, every teenager’s dream. My social life the night prior either had to be curbed or I had to pay the piper in sleep deprivation, neither one a real attractive option to seventeen-year-old me. There was a lot of gear to load, the decoys, food, thermoses, shotguns, ammunition, waders, dog food and more. The drive was the exception, a cozy choice of sleeping or listening to my dad tell old hunting stories or usually a combination thereof.
On arrival we flung the doors open to bitter cold as the sky slowly grew aglow. If we were lucky it was just cold, not wet. A dry and still twelve degrees was a dream compared to a wet and windy thirty-four. Then the unloading began as Cheska quivered with anticipation and frustration at our pace of work. We had developed a relationship with this rancher who let us hunt his place for years. One of his conditions was that we would not drive down through the corn stubble fields between his house and the river. A condition we were glad to accept, but it did mean lugging the decoys, shotguns, ammo, thermoses, food, and dog supplies across a frozen ankle busting purgatory that lie between us and our task. That trek was the one part of the outing that produced adequate body heat to stay warm. Just enough that you were sweating a bit when you got to the river to set up. As you then sat though that little bit of sweat became a nice chilly wet blanket to sit and shiver within. Waterfowl hunting over decoys is comprised of lengthy stretches sitting, waiting, chatting, and shivering interrupted by suddenly spectacular heart racing moments when ducks or geese decide to come into your set. An average day for us in our spot probably meant three such moments. The remainder was sitting in quiet discomfort. Then you packed everything up, trekked back across the labyrinth of frozen corn stubble and settled into the drive home to thaw out.
Reflecting on those winter days sitting next to that river I now know that I got far more out of them that pleasant memories, father-son and bird dog-boy bonding. It would have certainly been worth it for those things, but the constant exposure to discomfort has proven of great value. I see three levels to the value of being uncomfortable. The first is obvious and easy to grasp, but nonetheless critical. That is simply accepting that the discomfort that comes along with pursuing something you find of value is essential to exploring potential in any area of life. I valued the time with my father, I valued watching my dog work, I valued those exhilarating moments when birds appeared down river and locked their wings to descend, and I valued the meat we put on a plate. If I wanted to experience those things, then I had to accept the short nights of sleep, the work, the ankle breaking hike, and the constant cold. It was a deal I made, and I understood. The runner who seeks that feeling of running a big PB, qualifying for nationals, making the varsity team, etc. obviously must accept the physical distress of hard running, the wear and tear of miles on the body, the sacrificed social activities, and the sometimes-brutal vulnerability that comes with toeing a start line. This is the deal the runner must be willing to make and must understand at every step.
The second level of the value of discomfort is deeper and less direct, and that is the development of the self that can be gained. This takes things a step further to acknowledge that as I sat in the cold shivering along that river as a teenager my reward was more than just time with my dad, my dog, the excitement of birds coming in, etc. There was growth from that discomfort that had nothing to do with those prizes of the day. Discomfort is just one version of adversity. Going through any form of adversity and surviving it offers the individual an opportunity to grow into a more resilient person, to reach a greater depth of self-reliance. One of the biggest things that bothers us about discomfort is that we fear it. We know that it is possible to freeze to death for example. So, there is some natural fear that comes when we get cold, particularly when we get cold and we don’t see it ending anytime soon. This, of course, is a healthy biological mechanism! Knowing that we can survive moderate exposures to things like cold, hunger, dehydration, etc. though leaves us with significantly greater belief in ourselves. I am not a meathead endorsing deliberately putting yourself in discomfort simply to endure it. I do believe strongly though that everyone should seek challenging things that inherently bring with them discomfort. Know it going in, understand it, accept it, and embrace it within reason. You stand to gain not only the known rewards of the task at hand but significant resilience and self-reliance.
The third level of valuing discomfort is more nuanced. It is getting to a point that you can find beauty in being uncomfortable. Being cold, scared, hungry, dehydrated, or in reasonable pain all bring us to a heightened state of awareness. Our bodies respond to these stresses with dumps of adrenaline, and hormonal changes. Interestingly these responses end up being much like the responses to things we think of as pleasurable such as intoxication, a first kiss, or passing someone in the final stretch to win a race. If there is so much similarity in how our bodies respond to pleasure and discomfort, then why do our minds view them so differently? This takes me back to my college days studying philosophy. I recall being captivated by how the Stoics viewed pleasure and pain as similar entities. It should be noted they warned greatly against the dangers of both. Stoicism recognized how similar these two things actually are in the human experience though. However, contemporary society presents them as opposites and encourages us to seek pleasure and avoid discomfort at every juncture. This societal obsession with pleasure and disdain for discomfort can be overcome though. It simply takes awareness, effort, discipline, and like all worthwhile pursuits, practice. When I am halfway through a lung searing climb, sitting behind my binoculars shivering on a deer hunt, or navigating cramping miles from the truck; I have a choice in how I view those things. I can choose to be a victim of discomfort and let the fear within me grow, or I can accept the state I find myself in and lean into it with curiosity and presence. I can feel sorry for myself or I can reframe it and be grateful that I am not plopped on a couch staring at a screen becoming by the minute more and more disconnected from myself and the natural world. I will gladly choose being uncomfortable over that terrifying state of existence. Give me the winter morning huddled in a blanket of sweat next to a frozen river; give me sacrifice, self-reliance, and true presence.