Monday, February 8, 2010

Cocooning: Is it a sign of contentment, or is it complacency?

I’m conflicted on the subject of cocooning.

Or, to put it another way, what one day I can justify as the cozy desire to stay home on other days looks a little like a very mild case of agoraphobia.

I don’t mean to make light of agoraphobia. It’s a serious issue, and I can’t pretend that my frequent (and somewhat seasonal) aversion to leaving the house is anything like a crippling anxiety disorder associated with crowds. Once I’m out somewhere, I generally enjoy the bustle of strangers and the opportunity to meet new people.

What I find hard to confront some days is the part that comes before that: the requirement that I venture out of my own house. This desire to bask in the comforts of home rather than get out into the world is what trend-watcher and business guru Faith Popcorn termed “cocooning” in her 1991 book The Popcorn Report: The Future of Your Company, Your World, Your Life.

Sometimes I can justify cocooning as a positive thing. It’s good to appreciate what you have -- a warm well-lit home full of family members, books, fresh food, wireless connectivity and friends dropping by – not to mention the ecological correctness of staying put rather than traveling somewhere by car, which where we live is the only practical way to get to a destination more than a mile or two away, at least at this chilly time of year.

But sometimes I have to remind myself that too much contentment goes by the less affirmative name of complacency. Too much aversion to going out suggests self-limitations. It’s important to expose yourself to the ideas, personalities and issues of the outside world.

I was thinking about this earlier this week as I debated with myself about whether to accept an invitation to a newly forming book group. On the one hand, it seemed like an ideal opportunity. This one is local, ensuring I’d never have to travel more than five miles to a meeting, and the group has already decided to meet every other month. Also, they are going to discuss two or three short stories at each meeting, so I wouldn’t have to worry about getting stuck reading a 400-page novel I didn’t like.

But when the organizer sent out a follow-up email asking for commitments from members, I found myself procrastinating on a response. Going out at night is always a hassle during the week, not because my kids make it difficult – they’re old enough now that the bedtime routine is easy and consistent whether it’s me, my husband, their grandparents or a paid sitter overseeing the process – but just because it takes away valuable time from my daily routine. The hours of 7 to 10 are when I clean up from dinner, make the kids’ lunches, check that they’ve done their homework, and finish up any deskwork that didn’t get done during the day, not to mention try to get to bed early enough that eight hours of sleep is a possibility (seven is usually a more realistic goal; six and a half is typical). Even if it was just once every two months, I knew when the evening came, I’d wish I were staying home.

At the same time, my more objective side knows there are compelling reasons to accept the invitation. The guest list comprises women from a variety of professional backgrounds whom the organizer chose because of their commitment to intellectual discourse; I’d learn a lot from them, and the reading list would surely expose me to works I wouldn’t otherwise read, since I almost never opt for short story collections.

Yesterday the question about the thin line between cocooning and pseudo-agoraphobia arose again when I let the kids talk me out of going to church. On the one hand, the idea of staying home for Sunday morning was so appealing. We’d hosted a cocktail party the night before; we were tired and still had a lot of cleaning up to do. If I stayed home, I could catch up with a bunch of things on my To Do list: not just the post-party cleanup but balancing my checkbook and cleaning the guinea pig’s cage as well. And for Unitarians, church is essentially considered optional on any given Sunday.

On the other hand, it’s church. Of course it’s a good idea to go, I told myself. Don’t be so complacent. Church is always a character-building experience; it’s good for you to make the effort, to mingle with the congregation, to sing the hymns, to listen to the sermon.

But I love Sunday mornings at home, the first voice argued. It will be so cozy to just cocoon here, and I’ll get so much done.

But you could use that argument to never go to church, the second voice retorted. You could avoid every party, every community organizing meeting, every possible opportunity to benefit from society as a character-building entity. Where’s the line between staying contentedly at home appreciating what you have and failing to fulfill your obligations – social, spiritual, civic – to being part of a community?

I don’t know the answer. I skipped church and decided to decline the book club, but I promised myself I’d attend every Town Meeting this year. I suppose one rule of thumb might be that if it’s something I’ll it I feel guilty about missing– like church – I should just go. But for the most part, it’s a case-by-case judgment call.

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