XIII. How to Endure Pain

Ideas for practicing voluntary discomfort

Welcome to The Stoa Letter, the newsletter on Stoic theory and practice.

Every week we share three emails to help you build resilience and virtue with ancient philosophy. Each email includes one meditation on Stoic theory, one action to do in order to become more Stoic, and links to the best resources we’ve found.

🏛️ Theory

The Stoic philosopher, Musonius Rufus once said:

It is the height of shamelessness to think about how weak our bodies are when enduring pain, but to forget how weak they are when experiencing pleasure.

Musonius Rufus, Sayings

We build resilience to suffering by enduring it. Ironically, sometimes it’s easier to do that than reduce our addiction to pleasure.

Of course, there’s nothing bad about feeling good. Problems occur when we strive for gratification instead of meaning. Life is about more than feeling good.

To combat pleasure’s allure, the Stoics promoted voluntary discomfort: choosing to undergo pain and forgo pleasure to remind oneself of what truly matters.

The Roman Stoic, Cato the Younger provides an example of this. He consistently chose the hard way, rejecting luxury, comfort, and ease:

Cato chose to wear the simple, outmoded clothing of Rome’s mythical founders and to go barefoot in sun and cold. Powerful men gifted themselves villas and vineyards; Cato preferred a life of monkish frugality. Roman politics was well-oiled with bribes, strategic marriages, and under-the-table favors; Cato’s vote famously had no price.

Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman, Rome’s Last Citizen

When given the opportunity, Cato promoted practical goods, instead of symbolic ones. When he was in charge of handing out prizes at athletic games, he handed out radishes instead of gold crowns:

​​In other years, at more lavish spectacles, the victors won gold crowns—but gold was a useless luxury. At Cato’s games, the victors wore crowns of simple olive leaves and won trophies a man could put to use: a head of lettuce, a basket of radishes, a jar of wine, salt pork, an armful of figs, or a bundle of wood.

Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman, Rome’s Last Citizen

Cato's life raises the question: what can we do today to practice voluntary discomfort?

Here’s a list of ideas for you:

  • Walking barefoot

  • Overdressing or underdressing

  • Take cold showers

  • Do high-intensity exercise

  • Fasting

  • Meditating

  • Blocking social media

  • Listening, truly listening, to annoying people

  • Fasting from electronics and the internet entirely

  • Sleeping on the floor

  • Taking public transportation or walking

  • Committing to a day of silence

  • Living on less – giving away 10% (or more) of your income

Personally, I find running and meditating the most challenging and useful. I’m considering taking up fasting or cold showers again. Let me know what practices you’ve done (reply to this email or add a comment on the web).

– Caleb

🎁 Learn More About Cato

We’ll be writing more about Cato, but the best way to learn more about the man is to read Rome’s Last Citizen.

It is the best book on the life of Cato the Younger – hands down.

And we’re running a giveaway of the book this month. To win a signed copy, refer The Stoa Letter to 10 people who would find it useful. If you do that, we’ll send you send you a free copy.

If you’re reading this on the web, check your last Stoa Letter to get your referral link or subscribe to the Stoa Letter to get your link.

Check out additional details below.

🎯 Action

If you haven’t already, choose one item from the list of voluntary discomfort practices and commit to incorporating it into your daily routine. Start with something small and gradually work up to more challenging practices. Reflect on the experience to cultivate a deeper understanding of is good.

🔗 Links

🎧️ Negative visualization involves imaging ways things can go wrong in order to prepare for when they do. It also helps us build gratitude for the current moment. It’s a technique that many find essential for managing hardship – but not all. Will Eden didn’t find it useful. Instead he coined the term negative actualization here:

Life gives us plenty of opportunities where things actually go wrong, where things are actually bad and hard. And the way in which I'm the most Stoic is that for me, having had those bad experiences in life does make me appreciate all the good way more than I can from just doing the negative visualization.

Will Eden

Whether or not you find negative visualization practices appealing, this is a powerful reframing.
🐦️ From Twitter:

🏛️ If you haven’t had the chance to read them yet, check out our earlier letters from this week on Cato the Younger: A Role Model for All Stoics and Five Life Lessons from Cato the Younger

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