"I don't feel comfortable about that."
"Mind if I make myself comfortable?"
"Do whatever makes you feel comfortable."
Miss Manners has heard a great deal of this kind of talk lately. The veneration of comfort as the most important of all feelings, the one that ought to be used to determine what one's actions should be, is beginning to make her feel very ill at ease, indeed.
Comfort is all very well in its place. Miss Manners has nothing against pillows, teddy bears and blue jeans. But she has serious objections to comfort as a guide to the regulation of human behavior.
And she also could point out that comfort isn't all it is cracked up to be as a source of pleasure. Lying around the house in your bathrobe doing nothing is only fun if you've been out of the house doing something all week. Ask any invalid.
In the spirit of an age that is in love chiefly with its own feelings, comfort has been enshrined in the place that used to be occupied by the conscience. The confusion is compounded by the fact that conscience's chief weapon was to make those who violated it feel uncomfortable.
But there is an important difference. A good, operating conscience drew its ideas of what ought to be done and what not from the moral teachings of the society, perhaps modified by individual philosophy. (One of the grudges people have against conscience is that the adult mind has a difficult time modifying the standards that the conscience learned in childhood.)
A conscience may have given you a whammy of discomfort when you did wrong, but it did not delegate to your individual feelings the job of deciding what was wrong.
For this purpose, the comfort gauge does not work. Plenty of people feel perfectly comfortable doing dastardly things, such as striking out at whoever is in their way, belittling others to aggrandize themselves and seeking their own pleasure without considering the cost to anyone else.
Even more people fail to feel discomfort when omitting to perform their duties, from not writing thank-you letters to not attending funerals. In fact, the chief bolstering argument is that the duty itself produces discomfort. If you feel uncomfortable at the sight of a seriously ill friend, this argument goes, that is more important than any feelings the friend may have about your neglecting him.
All of this is very stern and disagreeable, Miss Manners admits. Then let us also consider how poorly the comfort factor serves as the sole producer of pleasure.
Comfort opposes exertion. Its answer, when you turn to it to ask whether some effort is worth the trouble, is always a lackadaisical "Don't bother."
Those who take advantage of this to get out of doing their duty may be satisfied, even if Miss Manners raises a fuss.
But what are they missing? Comfort is not really a terrific source of fun.
The constant seeker of comfort will never know the thrill it is to force oneself to do something scary, because it seems to be beyond one's capacities, and to succeed. On a simpler level, the person who always dresses only for comfort will never have the delight of feeling dashing or glamorous.
Miss Manners is not against comfort, and certainly not in favor of discomfort. Whatever gauge it is that tells her that lying in the hammock with a good book is her most beneficial form of exercise cannot be wrong.
She is merely noting that this sweet little emotion, which is all very well in its way, should not be trusted to make any important decisions. When the action starts, it always wants to roll over and take a nap.
Q. How should a lady wear her Phi Beta Kappa key? I know you can be counted on not to take the easy way and say "proudly" or "humbly."
Back in college, very long ago, I started to wear mine as a pendant on a short gold chain but was soon made aware that it was presumptuous for a girl to wear her key at all. Feeling that it would have been even more presumptuous to wear a waistcoat, gold watch and chain, I put the key away, but I now find myself in a situation where it would be a pleasure and an advantage to sport the key.
I feel that times have changed, but meanwhile, I have lost my nerve.
A. There was never a rule of etiquette that discouraged ladies from wearing their Phi Beta Kappa keys. A neck chain or bracelet was always the suitable place for one.
What you are referring to was a general feeling that ladies ought to pretend to be ignorant for the sake of encouraging romance. Etiquette is innocent of such idiocy. Miss Manners never understood then, and still doesn't, why anyone would want to have a romance with a gentleman presumed to be attracted by ignorance.