You know how sometimes you just keep tripping over the same idea all day long, and you think: Maybe I should write about this? Well, the thought that has been popping up for me today—and I suppose all week to tell the truth, is the word comfort. What does comfort mean to you? Maybe you’ve never given it much thought. Nor had I until this week, but I was finally curious enough to look it up in the Online Etymology Dictionary.
As a verb, the word comfort (the aforementioned dictionary says) comes from the late 13th-Century term conforten, meaning “to cheer up, console.” It’s from an Old French term conforter, meaning “to comfort, to solace; to help, strengthen.” This, in turn, comes from a more decisive Late Latin term meaning “to strengthen much.”
To less precise minds (like mine perhaps) there might be a shorter way of getting to the same idea. “Con/com,” (we all know that means together) and “fort,” something you hole up in to fight off a real or imagined enemy. When I was a kid we made forts out of piles of leaves the city dumped on our vacant lot so my father could till it under the next spring and turn our North Carolina clay into something he could grow vegetables in. There are good guys and bad guys when you’re playing fort, and the ones fighting with you to protect the fort are so undeniably on your side that even at the age of 8, no one had to explain it to me.
I really think this childhood imagery sheds important light on the subject of comfort, which the etymological dictionary somehow entirely misses. It’s too tempting to stand off to the side and posture as the “strong one” telling the “weak one” how they ought to deal with the fight; and then go merrily home to curl up with a Good Book, forgetting about the whole thing. But wait. If we’re together in a fort . . . your sadness is my sadness, every missile that hits you hits me. I feel what you feel, I’m in there with you. Now, that kind of friendship gives comfort.
But who hasn’t had the experience of suffering while well-meaning but detached friends gather to throw advice at you safely from one side while a threat still looms on your other side? They are determined they will prove their worth by being an example of strength and wisdom. Without actually saying it, they manage to convey how lucky you are to have them alongside to support you with pat sentiments and just the right pithy quote. They are the friends of Job; the Grande Dame, bringing a basket of goods (baked by her servants) to the poor townsfolk. If you’ve had this experience and you’re like me, you came away with the clear understanding that such a person doesn’t know how to be (or care to be) in the fort alongside you fighting off the enemy and feeling the stress with you. Much easier to offer you the dictionary kind of comfort that can be telegraphed from miles outside of the fort: “Oh, sorry this is happening, but just keep keep calm and carry on! Would you like a muffin?”
This isn’t to say that you have to be in near proximity to someone to fight in the fort with them. You can be far away in miles and suffering in the fort—and you can live next door and be emotionally distant. No, hunkering down in the fort together requires connecting in your heart and mind in ways that only the inner-most circle of your friends, or those whose similar experiences are still fresh in their minds, will take the time to do with you. This doesn’t lessen the value of your other friends, we need all levels of friendship. But it does tell you where your inner circle is.
As some of these thoughts were churning in my mind this week, one of my three daughters came home from a two-year absence and while we were chatting casually in my home office, she picked something up from my bookshelf almost absent-mindedly. It was a Comfee Doll, something I found a couple of months ago at the Childhood Grief and Traumatic Loss conference that I attend every year.
The Comfee doll is a cuddly and loosely doll-shaped bean bag scented with yummy herbs like lavender. You can put it in the microwave to warm it up, but you don’t have to. It’s just as comforting to snuggle with at room temperature. Kids love them, but as I learned from the reaction of my adult daughter—and from my own as well—you don’t have to be a kid to appreciate them.
“Oh, but how shallow is this?” you’re surely thinking now. “She starts off talking about making real connections when you’re suffering; and ends up implying that an inanimate pile of beans, herbs and fuzzy cloth could take the place of human companionship.”
Well, judging from the way I’ve seen people try to comfort children in the past, I might venture to say that many of those kids would have been far better off with a Comfee Doll than facing the realization that nobody is interested in engaging with them in the trenches. And that impression is only reinforced when I see how children and adults alike cling like drowning men to these non-judgmental, soft and cozy, sweet-smelling, hug-in-a-bean-bag creatures.
Yes of course—we’d all prefer a real person fighting in the fort with us when it gets right down to it. But I’d have a Comfee Doll over a Grande Dame with a basket of croissants any day, and I’m willing to bet you would too. And even if you’re lucky enough to have the best of companions who are willing to hole up in the fort to endure the wearying bombardment alongside you, there will always be those times when sleep eludes and a Comfee Doll is just the thing to help you drift off into a much-needed lavender-scented dream.
it feels easier to bake muffins, than to be silent with a friend, which can feel awkward when we’re not used to hunkering down and simply being in the situation with a friend. This whole thing of hunkering down requires being still, and I have been looking at the subject of being still lately and realized you could only really be still if you felt comfortable – funny how it goes together 🙂
Interesting, Rachel, that’s true. We tend to fidget most when we’re anxious, don’t we? So yes, being still does require being comfortable. And emotions are very contagious. Which I suppose is why it helps so much when a friend hunkers down with us–their calm comfort helps regulate our anxiety, bringing it down. As far as being silent with a friend . . . there’s value in that sometimes, but there’s also a lot of room between silence and throwing out advice. We can and should say things that show we are attuned to what our friend is feeling–and if they ask for advice there’s nothing wrong with sharing what you’ve done in the same situation. But it’s the sharing aspect “I’ve been there too,” that helps so much. Or if you haven’t had the experience yourself, it can be “It hurts me that you hurt, and I get why you would.” I think of parent-infant bonding: it happens through the parent’s ability to feel what a child is feeling, and their quick response to that child’s needs. What parent changes the diaper of a crying baby without also soothing it with words and sounds that essentially tell the child, “I understand?”
All of that said, I have nothing against muffins (perhaps unfortunately, my scale might suggest). As long as they aren’t delivered with a boatload of condescending advice. 🙂
These are people who are usually faced with far too many problems on their plate for them eat.
Some people with agoraphobia turn to substance abuse in order to cope with fear, guilt, hopelessness and isolation.
The important thing is not to let them takeover or dominate your