Necessary Comfort

Misery may love company, but it adores relief. Hope of relief is what the miserable live for.

A hot meal for troops in the field is not strictly necessary, any more than hot showers. Only calories count, and packaged cold rations provide them. But a hot breakfast is a psychological boost, a reminder of how things were and can be, and when you are cold and wet and have not slept, it does not matter if the thermal Mermite containers make the scrambled eggs green and wet.

The promise of comfort—normality, relief, the domestic, restfulness—allows for greater effort. We all know this, even from workdays in cubicles and truck cabs and at retail counters, where we anticipate going home, fixing something to eat, speaking with loved ones, petting our cats, and bingeing a show. These things make us more capable of working well the next day.

Similarly, a country is meant to be, among other things, a comfort to its citizens. It should provide a sense of belonging and safety, preconditions for being able to thrive. Homeland, we call it, even motherland.

Growing up American, in the time and place and other circumstances of my youth, I could not always count on a good bed or nourishing food, but I felt the comfort of being American. Call it the consumer’s view of American exceptionalism. My existence in the American system provided me (sometimes cold) comfort that I could (if I had the money) go where I wanted across the states, not having to show papers or be surveilled. Our country had leadership, of one sort or another, and an abundance of resources. Basic services and infrastructure were provided to many. A spirit of the law defied despots and inflammable greed. Books were not much censored. If, in the course of travels abroad, you were detained, at least the consul might come to visit. To be American, I felt as a kid, meant having a hard bottom on which to found a wall or set a lamp-post safely.

But I was born in Saigon, a city that ceased to exist, and was alive through the Nixon era, when things began to feel different from, say, my father’s time. Halfway through my military service I got my first passport, issued so my team could travel. The American Embassy in Panama did not give us the official “no-fee” passports that had been common for soldiers. They issued ordinary civilian passports (we were told to grow our hair out before they took the photos), because another military diver, Robert Dean Stethem, had been identified by terrorists on a hijacked civilian flight that summer, then beaten, shot, and dumped on the tarmac.

Years later I came to envy my wife’s British passport, which felt safer in use. Many US citizens who had dual citizenship, in the years after 9-11, began to travel as Brits, or Canadians, or Mexicans—anything other than as Americans.

But I have never felt as discomfited as an American, abroad and at home, as in these last years. America has always had its problems, but its recent self-devouring paranoia and rage; its cynical and politicized non-response to pandemic; its historic inequality, its global rudderlessness; and its refusal even to accept election results have stripped away something vital to its identity: the hope for relief at the end of a day, so we can rise refreshed and ready to work.


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John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.