real life

'When I was 18, a boy said something that shaped the next 30 years of my life.'

When I was 18, a boy said something to me that stopped time.

He shouldn’t have been talking. We were in a Maths class. The teacher’s voice, rendered unintelligible by the subject matter, the heat, and the swoosh of the ceiling fans, was no match for the boy’s words:

“A ship is safe in harbour, but it wasn’t designed to stay there.”

A bubble formed around us. An understanding bloomed… until the teacher’s reprimand broke the moment. But he had articulated who I wanted to be. Someone who leaves the harbour of their life. Someone who wouldn’t get stuck in their comfort zone.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve attempted to define ‘comfort zone’ and I have struggled to the point of almost giving up. It’s a slippery beast. One person’s comfort zone is another person’s ultimate fulfilment. Someone’s comfort zone can shape shift with time. An 18-year old’s can look very different to a 45-year-old’s. 

In the end, this is how I’ve chosen to define it:

The comfort zone is being trapped between the fear of the unknown and the knowledge that entering that unknown could provide the missing pieces of you. It is settling for a life less than you’d hoped for. Leaving the zone won’t necessarily get you what you want, but you won’t die wondering what might have happened if you’d tried.

When I was 18, I knew what I wanted my life to look like. I was ravenous for my independence. I wanted a veterinary career. I was going to travel. I was never going to get married or have children. For me, at that age, marriage and motherhood represented the ultimate in settling.

So, I studied, worked, travelled. I ticked my boxes.

I was defined by my career. and believed that the nature of that career meant I was immune to sliding into the comfort zone because it was interesting, hard-worked for, coveted. I didn’t realise that the comfort zone is not always comfortable.

After a few years my precious career landed me with burn out. I was devastated. My life’s goal, not all it was cracked up to be. Spiky questions popped their heads into my night time hours. Had I chosen this career because of its comfortable respectability rather than passion?

My ego did not appreciate this line of questioning. So, I did what many of us do when our comfort zone is challenged, I ignored it. I became more selective about the jobs I took. I reduced my hours. I rediscovered my liking for the work, and I breathed a huge sigh of relief, because my life still looked the way I wanted it to look.

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I let it lie. I disrupted my comfort zone in other ways. I stretched myself by doing things I could never have imagined at 18. I married. I had two children.  I went back to University part-time to get my Master of Arts in Writing Editing and Publishing. My interest in exploring this other side of me outweighed the discomfort of being asked endlessly the question I didn’t have an answer to:

“But what are you going to do with that degree?”

My Bipolar 1 Disorder, born with my first child, yanks me out of my comfort zone every couple of years or so, too. At times it has forced me so far out of my comfort zone I was certain I no longer had one.

But I did. My comfort zone had become my now 20-year-old veterinary career. I have returned to the familiar nest of this work after every episode of illness, and after the birth of each child… to prove both to myself and the world that I could. And it has taken ten years after finishing my Master of Arts to acknowledge that the answer to:

“But what are you going to do with that degree?”

Is:

“I still don’t know. But I do know I will never fully explore what I can do with it while I still have one toe in my veterinary career.” 

So, I’ve flown the nest. The profound discomfort of acting on this decision lessens with each day. Whether I’ll return to it remains to be seen. But if I do, it will be knowing I tested my wings.

Oh, and the boy who stopped time for me?

I (eventually) married him. And so far, we’ve managed to steer our marriage clear of the comfort zone.

Postscript: I believe the original quote is:

‘A ship in Harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for’ and can be attributed to John Augustus Shedd (1859 -1928)

This post first appeared on Thought Food and was republished here with full permission. 

Anita Link is a writer, a mother of two, a small animal veterinarian and a passionate mental health advocate. You can read more from Anita on her blog Thought Food.

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