When comfort creates weakness

I started reading The Coddling of the American Mind last night. The book’s subtitle sums up its thesis: Good intentions and bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure.

I’m only a short way in, but the book already resonates. In particular, I’ve thought lately about the relationship between comfort and weakness. This reflects the authors’ “bad idea” that “what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.”

For years I suffered pain in the arch of my foot. I’m pretty sure that I had plantar fasciitis. It got worse after I walked long distances. This sucked, because I walk a lot. It’s my preferred mode of travel.

I tried to fix it in various ways. I got physiotherapy. I got orthotics. I wore New Balance running shoes that felt like I was walking on pillows. But nothing solved it. And some things, like the pillow shoes, made it worse.

Then I realized that I never suffered pain walking barefoot at home. In fact, it felt therapeutic to walk on my hardwood floors. So instead of cushions and insoles, I went minimal. I’ve spent the summer in Toms. (And sometimes worked-in Birkenstock sandals.) My feet feel great.

Turns out I’m not alone. There’s a minimalist shoe movement with scientific support. (Toms aren’t officially minimalist shoes. But they have similar features. Or lack thereof.) Children who wear typical shoes have a reduced foot arch. Walking in minimalist shoes is as effective as foot strengthening exercises.

Sure, they’re just shoes. But they’re a great example of minimalism’s value and excessive comfort’s curse. We need to push against things to strengthen and grow. Too much comfort makes us weak. Weakness makes us seek more comfort. It’s a downward spiral.

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