Stoic Discomfort

By Lentus Ambulandus, from his self-imposed exile.

Stoic Week, Day 2.

[Note: you can click here to download the Stoic Week 2015 Handbook]

There is a school of thought among Stoics that a little discomfort can be beneficial. The temporary loss of the good things in life, or the suppression of pleasure, makes us appreciate the good and the pleasurable all that much more.

Taking things a step further, a brief foray into downright miserable conditions teaches us that we can, in fact, survive them. And the next time we find ourselves in similar circumstances, we’ll be stronger, more prepared, psychologically inoculated. My Platoon Sergeant reminded me of this many years ago, as he observed my futile efforts to prevent the gushing rainwater from flooding my sleeping shelter:

Son, if it ain’t rainin’, it ain’t trainin’. Dig.

But according to the Stoics, there’s something even better than being forced into discomfort: purposely creating our own discomfort. And from an Escapological perspective, I have to agree.

In his excellent “A Guide To The Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy”, William Irvine devotes an entire chapter to voluntary discomfort. Seneca contemplated bad things happening, in order to appreciate what he had. The Stoic rival Epicurus practiced poverty to determine whether he really needed what he had. But it was Musonius, says Irvine, who took things to a higher level:

In particular, we should periodically cause ourselves to experience discomfort that we could easily have avoided. We might accomplish this by underdressing for cold weather or going shoeless. Or we might periodically allow ourselves to become thirsty or hungry, even though food and water are at hand, and we might sleep on a hard bed, even though a soft one is available.

Practiced regularly, exercises in voluntary discomfort teach us what we truly need, and this becomes part of our Escapological DNA. For example, I really enjoy camping. After a few nights shivering in a sleeping bag on uneven, rocky terrain, I appreciate the next warm bed I sleep in, king-sized or not. And my first shower after five days without is always the best damned shower I ever had, even if the water isn’t particularly hot, or flowing from some fancy 16-inch rain shower head.

Travel–on the cheap, especially to developing countries–might also be considered an act of voluntary discomfort. It will teach you that anything in excess of 500 square feet of living space is gravy, and that most of what people consider “essential” is ridiculous.

Toward the end of the chapter on voluntary discomfort, Irvine discusses the Stoic concept of pleasure suppression. In what might have been an early warning that the pursuit of “more” can lead to a life of cubicle servitude, we have this from Diogenes the Cynic:

With a stroke of her wand pleasure coolly drives her victim into a sort of sty and pens him up, and now from that time forth the man goes on living as a pig or a wolf.

Stoicism: it’s a gymnasium where Escapologists can go to lift weights. Go there, get strong, and don’t let yourself become a pig or a wolf.

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Lentus Ambulandus is New Escapologist's Chief Leisure Officer. He advocates doing the things worth doing (hiking, cycling, sipping coffee, reading books), and proudly accomplishes less in a month than most people do in a week. His creed is simple: Death Before Employment.

2 Responses to “Stoic Discomfort”

  1. Spoonman says:

    A Guide to a Good Life is a great book, I need to re-read it one of these days. Stoic discomfort is one of the most empowering concepts for any Escapologist. It’s probably the best way to ward off hedonic adaptation.

  2. Empowering: yes. What I failed to mention in my post is that I’ve come to be happier with less (as opposed to being resigned to / accepting of less), whether that’s a smaller living space, fewer possessions, or fewer activities on my plate. Speaking of plates, I’m also much happier with simpler meals: a protein, a starch, some veggies…no drizzle, no compote, no bullshit sauce.

    All this was somewhat accidental, to be honest. I realized one day that my comfort/pleasure threshold had been gradually lowered, and that this was partially the result of my repeated experiences with voluntary discomfort. The upside, of course, is that less costs less, which in turn requires less effort, aka work. It’s a virtuous circle.

    If I could go back in time, I’d probably beeline it for Corsica, circa 49 AD. I’d tell Seneca to stay in exile.

    “Don’t go back, you fool. You’re happy here.”

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