Why We Need to Read Stories That Make Us Uncomfortable

These Types of Stories Take Us Outside Our Own Narrow Bubble (and This Is True of Everyone)

For each of us, if you round up everything you know, all the people with whom you’re acquainted, all the experiences you’ve had, and then compare all this to everything in the whole world? Well, it’s quite limited.

Think of your own life, the people in it, your knowledge and experiences, as though it were a quarter (yes, the piece of currency). Place that quarter in the middle of a vast field. You and your life are the quarter. Everything outside it in the field and beyond is all that you do not know. All the people you’ve never met. The experiences you haven’t or will never know. The information you have no clue about.

It is vast. Each of us thinks we know a lot, in the context of our own individual life, but in reality, each of us knows very little in the grand scheme of it all.

Reading stories that make you uncomfortable, that are about topics with which you are not familiar, which unsettle or even upset you, which challenge your beliefs, and which make you think, can be some of the most important things you ever read or hear about.

Why?

Because they expand your mind and concept of the world. They take you beyond your narrow bubble. They extend the perimeter of your knowledge. They can expand your degree of empathy and understanding of life too.

These Types of Stories Make Us More Resilient

We think trigger warnings help us. They don’t. So far, research has actually shown they do the opposite.

They reinforce our sense of ourselves as weak, unable, and lacking strength.

Also, avoiding the topics and things that upset you has been proven by psychologists to actually make those very things more traumatizing and more painful for you, as opposed to facing and trying to work through them, which tends to be far better for mental health and recovery in the long run. I imagine I’ll receive a plethora of death threats now or a barrage of messages about what a “bad” person I am for expressing this thought and information (*Cue the eye roll*).

(Here’s an article about that research for those who are interested. That trigger warnings do not work and are, in fact, problematic much of the time. The information in the article was gotten firsthand by me, from a Harvard Professor and Ph.D. who teaches a class, The Psychology of Self Harm).

We’ve come to this misguided, silly way of thinking in American culture that avoiding things that upset us is healthy and good.

It isn’t. It makes us less wise and wimpier, to put it in the simplest of terms.

Because if we only ever study or read things that we “like” or that make us feel “comfortable” or “safe,” this is remaining within a self-created, heavily padded bubble and a narrow one at that.

This is the opposite of education and learning, and it’s the opposite of how one pursues and cultivates intellectual growth, development, or wisdom.

These Types of Stories Are Reflective of the Real World

The real world, and genuine human experience, are not just topics that make us feel better, feel comfortable, or feel good.

Yes, much of life is filled with light, beauty, awe, inspiration, and awesome experiences, people, and things.

A lot of life is also painful, challenging, upsetting, laced with loss and unfairness, and includes things like abuse, trauma, betrayal, and conflicting, complicated, hurtful emotions.

Thus, when we only read stories that are comfortable, one-dimensional, neat, safe, easy, and not too deep with their darkness, this is fake. It’s also only allowing ourselves access to half of life. It’s avoiding a whole other aspect of the human experience. And this keeps us more ignorant, more cowardly, less resilient, and less wise. It might also make us less empathetic.

We sometimes need to read stories that make us uneasy, that take us somewhere outside our comfort zone, that unsettle or challenge us.

These are some of the stories from which we stand to grow the most as individuals and as a society at large.

These Types of Stories Start Conversations, and Sometimes Crucial Ones

So many books have the power to do this, either between individuals or throughout society at large.

This depends, partially, on the eye of the beholder. It also depends on the content of the book and how well it’s executed. And, it depends on timing.

To name a few books that have been major conversation starters, though:

  • The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (a powerful, important book about racism and police brutality. It was made into a movie, long-listed for the National Book Award, and then it got banned. Of course it did, within our current climate with regard to anything we find upsetting, it must then be “blocked” or canceled).
  • Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
  • Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance
  • A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
  • Sing Unburied Sing by Jesmyn Ward
  • Euphoria by Lily King

All of these are excellent books with important things to say, and they got people talking as a result.

These Types of Stories Can Change Our Life and Our Society at Large

When you read something that takes you way out of your comfort zone, that challenges you, or that opens your mind to something novel or unsettling, in some cases, it can change your life.

Books and stories have the power to shift our opinions, to alter our beliefs and values, and even, to set our lives down different trajectories.

People have read books that sparked something inside them and resulted in a change in careers. They read or heard stories that prompted them to move elsewhere and explore life in a new locale. They’ve learned something from a book that resulted in behavioral changes that altered their relationships for the better afterward and ultimately improved their life.

These sorts of shifts can happen on a large scale as well when society is given books that make us think about things which we might not have been otherwise.

This current crusade to protect ourselves from anything that upsets us is not the path to resilience, strength, or wisdom.

It’s also not a realistic approach to the world at large, in which we will encounter a lot that is going to challenge us, make us uncomfortable, offend, and yes, upset us.

Instead, we need to learn how to face, engage with, and work with these very challenges and upsets. That is the only pathway towards growth.

This is why we need stories and books that make us uncomfortable, that unsettle us, that take us out of our comfort zone. These are good for us in numerous ways. Instead of continuing to cancel, and hide away from, and freak out about them, we would be far stronger (emotionally and mentally), as well as wiser, and even likely happier individuals if instead, we turned towards and engaged with this stuff. And that especially includes books, stories, and other readings.

Another important story on a related topic: Not Publishing Something Because It’s Upsetting or “Controversial” Is Bad For Our Society. Here’s How.

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