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Why I seek discomfort

Have you ever tried sleeping on hard ground at night, shivering with cold?

Well, it’s not terribly exciting.

Not eating anything with sugar in it for a few days? Turns out it’s not that difficult to resist after day two.

How about running until you had no energy left, and then pushing, running on?

These three experiences recently made an appearance in my life. What’s more, they did not happen by themselves, I sought them out.

Why? To answer that, here’s a piece of ancient wisdom.

“Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?” — Seneca

Seneca, a stoic philosopher, wrote this to his friend because he understood then that we grow comfortable and complacent without something forcing us to change. We come to take all the wealth we have for granted and not notice how we are already lucky. Seneca aimed to disrupt that, to make us again realize how blessed we are to even food and good clothes that so much of the world doesn’t have.

Far from comfortable, lying under a tree, on the ground with no blanket, shivering with cold, I understood Seneca’s advice clearly. I could do three things better.

First, I could empathize with people who are not so lucky as me.

I sometimes find it hard to empathize with people who are not me. Differences in wealth, religion, circumstances, and other things can make it hard for us to be empathetic, to understand how the other person must feel. Discomfort can make it clear to us how less fortunate people feel and in that way cultivate empathy.

Second, I could appreciate what I already have.

Appreciation is an under-appreciated skill. Our survival-oriented brains have a tendency to focus on the negative because that can mean danger to us. But these days, in the developed world there is not much that can truly threaten our existence. Nevertheless, the survival, what-can-harm-me approach to life is on 24/7 by default. If we want to be happy, we need to appreciate what we have and the things that are granted to us by others.

But when do we appreciate something the most? When we don’t have it. You most appreciate a glass of water after you’ve been thirsty for several hours. By depriving myself of comfort, I can truly appreciate it when it is within my reach. Seeing things from that perspective allows me to be grateful for simple things like a owning a bed.

Third, I could better understand how much I can endure.

Endurance is hard-wired into our DNA. We can survive in all climates and in a variety of harsh conditions and even outrun a horse in a long distance run. But that sort of endurance is easy to forget in this day and age. We are tough by default, but living a comfortable life can make us oblivious to the fact and lead us to complain about going up two flights of stairs or not having the fluffiest pillow.

Empathy. Appreciation. Endurance. These are the three things seeking discomfort helped me see clearer and I believe its worth seeking it once in a while.

If we can feel and endure discomfort, then we can better understand how comfortable and how lucky we are every day.