We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!
Bilbo, The Hobbit
Some of the best adventure stories are those that involve reluctant heroes. People who were once content with their “normal world” are relatable. Like them, we prefer not to get involved; we decide we are happy with the way things are.
Yet, by the end, we’re always glad when they get pulled into an adventure. As much as we might mourn their lost normal life, we always see a valuable lesson, one that they are better having learned, adventure and all.
Contentment makes one unwilling to adventure. Contentment certainly isn’t a bad thing in itself. Who doesn’t want contentment? It is the opposite of restlessness, the vice of being unable to see the good in where you are. On the other hand, contentment can be a euphemism for complacency.
This is why adventure is good for the soul. It makes us question how good our contentment is. Should we be content with life? Should we be content with ourselves? Or is complacency hiding depths that should be plumbed and tested through the discomfort that comes with adventure?
Bilbo from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is a good example of this. His only problem was that he was too content. His life really was good, and he was right to enjoy it.
Still his own hidden adventurousness pushed him to find that there was so much more that life could be. Adventure led him to try his courage against monsters, a dragon, and his friends. It made him more than he could have been if he’d never left his comfortable hobbit hole in the Shire.
Bilbo’s problem was that he had a small comfort zone. I relate to this problem. Pretty much anything could be an adventure for me; driving into LA—nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable, makes you late for dinner—would qualify. Other people do it every day! This is what having a small comfort zone means; you are uncomfortable where others are comfortable.
If someone has a small comfort zone, they likely would be MORE anxious to avoid adventures. Yet, that’s not always true. We of the Small Comfort Zone don’t always push ourselves in small ways. But big ways… That is more appealing. Why?
The worst part of having a small comfort zone is the fact that everyone else is comfortable when you aren’t. For Bilbo, the decision to come on the adventure in the first place is an adventure of its own. The dwarves aren’t impressed by this small show of courage that pushed him past his fear. They don’t see those little steps as the huge leaps they are.
If, however, you’re on a GREAT adventure, no one is comfortable. Enter a dragon-infested cave. No matter how big your comfort zone, that qualifies as an adventure. And when everyone is outside their comfort zone, it’s not quite so uncomfortable; Bilbo and the dwarves are once again on equal footing.
But since Bilbo has been outside his comfort zone for most of the story, it’s much easier for him to be there again. Suddenly, he’s the hero. Who’d’a thunk?
His adventure shakes Bilbo’s inmost character. He returns to his hole in Hobbiton, and in many ways he resumes his old life of contentment. But, as Gandalf tells him, “You are not the hobbit that you once were.” He visits elves, tells stories, and always seems on the lookout for more adventure. The other hobbits, who have never left the Shire, consider him odd. They, too, know he is not the same.
In Tolkien’s other stories, we see the ripples this one adventure causes. Bilbo’s stories inspire the next generation of hobbits, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin. The consequences of his journey make a second journey necessary and ultimately lead Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam out of Middle Earth.
That is a problem with adventure. Nasty, disturbing and uncomfortable as it is, it does seem the best way to demand more and more of yourself. And it is easy to desire the place that is outside everyone’s comfort zones.