The Surprising Benefits of Self-Imposed Difficulties

Diogenes in his jar, by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1860).

Source: Wikicommons/public domain

After being exiled from his hometown of Sinope for defacing its coinage, Diogenes the Cynic moved to Athens, took up the life of a beggar, and made it his mission to metaphorically deface the coinage of custom and tradition. convention – which he said was the false currency of morality.

Diogenes disdained the need for conventional shelter and other corrupting “treats” and instead chose to live in a storage jar and survive on a diet of chickpeas and lupins. He used to beg for bare necessities, including from statues, saying he practiced rejection. He argued that human beings had much to learn from the simplicity and naivety of dogs, which, unlike human beings, had not “complicated every simple gift from the gods”. The term “cynical” possibly derives from the Greek for “resembling a dog”, kynikos.

In the depths of winter, Diogenes undressed and kissed bronze statues. One day, seeing this, a Spartan asked him if he was cold. When he said he wasn’t, the Spartan replied, “Well then, what’s so awesome about what you do?”

Like their ancestors the Cynics and like the Spartans, the Stoics placed a high value on difficulties, albeit on a more modest or moderate scale. We should, they said, practice poverty routinely or impose mild hardship on ourselves, and there are several reasons for this.

First, find out what we can do without and reduce our fear of losing those things. In his LettersSeneca advises Lucilius: “Fix for yourself a period of a few days during which you will content yourself with very small quantities of food, and the cheapest species, and coarse clothing, and say to yourself: ‘Is this what I was scared ? ‘”

Second, to remember that simple things, like bread and olive oil, or a good night’s sleep, can be just as pleasant and beneficial as any great banquet, and so the pleasure is at both easily accessible and highly transferable.

Third, to better reflect on or work towards our true goals. “If you want to have time for your mind”, says Seneca, “you must either be poor or look like the poor… One cannot study without frugality, and frugality is only voluntary poverty.”

Here are six other benefits of self-imposed hardship, according to the Stoics:

  • To increase our appreciation and enjoyment of things we normally enjoy.
  • To break away from our usual routine and invigorate our mind while exercising and strengthening our freedom.
  • To be prepared for future difficulties, which, unless we are suddenly struck dead, is anything but a certainty.
  • To be convinced that the greatest part of our suffering lies not in the facts but in our attitude towards them.
  • To practice self-discipline, or test our stoicism.
  • To empathize with less fortunate people and people of the past.

In addition, poverty and self-imposed hardship can also have more mundane benefits, such as weight loss or savings in time or money.

Finally, all the reasons listed so far are themselves a source of pride and pleasure of another kind. “Don’t lament,” says Marc Aurèle, “about misfortune. Instead, rejoice in being the kind of person who can take misfortune without letting it upset you.

Seneca gives us the pleasure of radically relativizing self-imposed misery when he says: “Armies have endured being deprived of everything for the domination of another, so who will hesitate to bear misery when he is to free the mind from crises? madness ?

Neel Burton is the author of Stoic Stories.

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