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Can Comfort Keep Us From Caring?

Posted: 11/15/11 01:18 PM ET

Wednesday morning, while meditating on the proper moment to zip over and get my dusty automobile washed, I discovered in the morning LA Times that a Southern California car wash had chosen to unionize. I confess that my previous thoughts about the men who wash my car had rarely exceeded wondering what constituted a sufficient tip, lest I end up in the hell of bad tippers for eternity. According to the Times, this drive toward unionization came to Bonus Car Wash in Santa Monica because workers were not permitted to go on the clock until customers had actually arrived. Union organizers argue that--probably as a result--many car wash workers receive less than the minimum wage.

If I had not glanced at the morning paper Tuesday, I never would have given a thought to alleged injustices perpetrated on the quick-moving men who wash my car. Fortunately, at my house of news junkies, two daily newspapers lie on the breakfast table, NPR plays in the background and the evening network news is a command performance. But I know just as many people who avoid the news like a plague of tragedies. For untold millions, whatever they know of the world depends on 10 minutes of the Daily Show, office gossip or the headlines from Brian Williams' NBC newscast anchored by his flawless hair and exemplary jawline.

None of us would choose to oppress the local carwasheros, but few feel they have time and energy enough to linger on their plight. I think of this as the "couch potato dilemma." How do I let the world in enough to care without the stress leaving me with migraine headaches? I mean, really, who could blame somebody for wanting to relax rather than meditate on the latest victims of the service economy?

Comfort is a real human need--to replenish our zapped physical, emotional and spiritual batteries. Comfort salves the wounds of traffic, health insurance bureaucracy, unemployment and toddler crimes and misdemeanors. Only the most devoted puritan would blow up my cozy recliner or cut the power to your television just as the B-list celebrities begin to dance and the police detectives pick up the trail of the killer (with or without crime scene investigators, coroners, novelists and fake psychics).

The problem is: the rest stop of comfort easily turns into the eternal vacation of bourgeois ease. Comfort food like cheeseburgers, macaroni and cheese or Styrofoam ramen may temporarily relieve sorrow, but as a daily bread they would ruin the palate and harden the arteries. In short, comfort can become an opiate of the masses that dulls our attention to the world around us or even the normal challenges of daily life. Too much ease, and we stop growing as human beings. Our horizons shrink.

Or worse, we simply stop caring. The mass of humanity (not to mention the environment they depend on) remain off the radar screen. We all know about this--the hospitalized friend we did not visit, the gas guzzler we opted not to trade in, the granola bars we hoarded from the homeless man with the cardboard sign at the intersection.

Maybe it's time for me to find out where that unionized car wash is located.

Brett C. Hoover is the author of Comfort: An Atlas of the Body and Soul (Riverhead, $16) and a university professor in Los Angeles.