It’s a pleasant thought – being comfortable. The English make it even more pleasant by calling it “comfy.” On the Monty Python comedy show, in which much of the humor came from standing ideas on their heads – an old lady is threatened by the Spanish Inquisition with the torture of being forced to sit in the “comfy chair” – amid anguished cries of “No! No! Not the comfy chair!”
But comfort is such an individual matter – it’s a wonder most of us can use the same tables, pens, and steering wheels. People differ so widely in matters of taste that the issue is celebrated in nursery rhymes, such as the one about Jack Sprat and his wife, and the one declaring that:
Some like it hot,
Some like it cold,
Some like it in the pot, nine days old.
In the days before refrigeration, it was a good thing there were some people who actually preferred nine-day-old leftovers!
But when it comes to liking it cold, the modern freezer has done much to change tastes, especially when it comes to what we drink. In ancient times, ice was such a luxury that Roman emperors had small quantities brought specially, for them and their guests, down from the mountains. Today, most people in our culture have easy access to their own ice cubes. And, except in dire circumstances, many of us, especially in warm weather, would expect any drink they’re served to have such cubes floating in it.
I personally have never acquired this taste. On airplanes, when the drink-wagon comes down the aisle, even if I usually want only orange juice, I have to specify “No ice!” And even without any ice, the juice I get is usually quite cold enough.
What is it that makes ice cubes so appealing – even though, as they melt, they dilute the drink? It wasn’t so long ago that the only ice available in most houses was the big block brought by the ice-man, and put directly into its own compartment on top of the ice-box. Then if you did want some pieces to put in your drinks, you had to hack them off that block with an icepick.
But we are getting a long way from our theme of Comfort – about which our language tends to think negatively, with idioms like “cold comfort,” meaning no comfort at all, or “Job’s comforters,” referring to the Old Testament narrative, in which a blameless and upright man named Job is put through a whole series of losses and ordeals. Those who visit him and, at great length, offer their own versions of comfort, only make the poor man feel worse.
But nowadays we have the pleasant concept of a “comfort zone” – a term invented by psychologists to describe the circumstances in which a person feels least troubled by anxiety. The essence of comfort, from this point of view, is a sense of being in control – a control which comes from within. When someone starts behaving irrationally and yielding to panic, the advice they are most likely to be given – for whatever it may be worth – is: “Get a grip on yourself!”
The trouble is that comfort zones can overlap and conflict. One person may enjoy a quiet peaceful atmosphere, while another, who sometimes lives next-door or across the street, likes loud music, and has a dog which barks at all hours. Situations like this can end up in court – but, to the best of my knowledge, the word “comfort” does not appear in any law. (Nor does the word “love.”) The Golden Rule is not enshrined in any of our nation’s legal documents. which, in any case apply only within our nation. Think how much harder it is for our country to behave towards all other countries as we wish that they would behave towards us.
But of course, nations can’t collectively put their feet up, sit in comfy chairs, and tell jokes to each other. However there are professionals, for whom such activities are a serious responsibility, while, at the same time, they’re supposed to represent their nations’ interests. They are called diplomats, and their sphere of operations is the nearest approach we have to an international comfort zone.
(By the way, in case you were worried about Job and his many tribulations and false comforters, I’m glad to tell you that the story ends surprisingly happily, with Job getting back everything he had lost, and becoming even more prosperous than he was before.)