The Case for Voluntary Hardship

Picture of Seneca the Younger, the father of voluntary hardship.

“These individuals have riches just as we say we “have a fever,” when really the fever has us.” — Seneca the Younger

Think of the emergency you want to be ready for. Does it include suddenly having no electricity, running water, a car, or privacy, and lots of canned food…for six months? A lot of people would say that this is almost the definition of an emergency.

Or not.

At 19, I was plucked from the high life in California and dropped into a jungle with no electricity, running water…and so forth. But it wasn’t an emergency because that was just life on a mossy rock in the Pacific Ocean.

It turns out that emergencies exist primarily in our heads. So our emergency preparation needs to not only include physical preparations, but mental training as well. Fortunately, the practice of voluntary hardship is always available and provides excellent training.

Why you need this

If you are reading this, you live in a style that even the kings and emperors of just 150 years ago could not have imagined. With the flip of a switch you have light, open a door and you have food, press a few buttons and you have hot food. Move a lever and you have an endless supply of clean water in both hot and cold varieties. If you have a question, just say, “OK Google” and you have an answer.

All of this is important because when we think about the emergencies we are preparing for, we often think they will involve the addition of a lot of hardship. In reality, these emergencies arise from the removal of things we have come to enjoy and rely upon. But this means that practicing voluntary hardship is as easy as just taking a few things away for a while.

Why should we practice voluntary hardship? I’m glad you asked. Here are my three reasons backed up by old, dead guys because…credibility.

Practicing voluntary hardship builds our toughness muscle

Emergencies are about deprivation. Coping with deprivation is a skill—a mental muscle. In our abundant world of food courts, Amazon two-day shipping, and on-demand movies, our deprivation muscles are pretty weak. And this is a problem because just as imagining bench pressing 350 lbs. won’t actually allow you to press that weight, merely imagining that you can go a week without a hot shower doesn’t mean you will actually be able to do it.

“We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.” — Archilochos of Paros (born c. 680 B.C.)

When we practice voluntary hardship, we learn that really can survive adversity. This gives us the confidence to not panic when things we count on go missing (both in an emergency and when we just misplace our wallet).

Seneca the Younger, arguably the richest man in the Roman Empire, often practiced voluntary hardship as a way to not get so attached to his considerable wealth. He encouraged others to do the same:

“I shall give you also a lesson: 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, Letter 18, paragraph 6

As a bonus, when we voluntarily say no to things that we want, we develop a strength of character and exercise our willpower muscle.

In his novel Siddartha, Herman Hesse has his title character explain why fasting is such a valuable skill:

“Siddartha can wait calmly, he knows no impatience, he knows no emergency, for a long time he can allow hunger to besiege him and laugh about it. This, sir, is what fasting is good for.”

Hesse’s hero has built his fasting muscle to the point that he “knows no emergency.”

Practicing voluntary hardship teaches us our power

In the quote that opens this post, Seneca noted that people who have a lot of stuff don’t own their things so much as their things own them. When we voluntarily give up (even temporarily) some of our favorite things, we reduce their power over us and our attachment to them. In addition, we find out that we can get along just fine without them.

After 10 years of riding my bike to and from work, I was confident that I didn’t need a car for work, but still believed that I needed one for days when I had lots of places to go. Then last year, I had work downtown, a class at the university, and a dinner at the Dim Sum House. After arriving on time and perfectly comfortable at each of these widely separated destinations, I arrived home and was struck with the fact that there really isn’t anywhere I can’t get to on my bike. Not only can I totally take or leave a car, I have the confidence that I can get anywhere under my own power.

Practicing voluntary hardship makes us grateful

When we tell our selves “no” once in a while, we re-calibrate ourselves to less. We also become more grateful for whatever it is we have. Food tastes so much better when you have fasted, and your old bed is heavenly after a week on the ground with the scouts.

I think Louis CK says it best.

Video of Louis CK

How to practice voluntary hardship

At its most basic, voluntary hardship is just a matter of saying “no” to something you usually say “yes” to. Here is a quick list of some exercises in removing modern comforts:

  • Give up hot water by taking a cold shower
  • Give up sugar for a day or week
  • Give up anonymity by speaking or performing in public
  • Give up the elevator by taking the stairs
  • Give up dishonestly by tell the truth instead of a white lie
  • Give up being sedentary by running or lifting weights
  • Give up soda by drinking only water for a few days
  • Give up constant distraction by going a day without social media
  • Give up your car by riding a bike to work

Here’s a question for you: What voluntary hardship exercises have you tried or suggest and what did you learn? Leave your answer in the comments.

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