Even if you don’t consider yourself a particularly fortunate person, you likely have more than you think you do. If you have the time and the means to read blogs today, you are a fortunate person. It is possible to get so comfortable in our good fortune that we lose sight of how fortunate we really are. We may not be wealthy, but we are comfortable with where we live, our cars, our laptops, our iPhones, indoor plumbing, electricity, and running water. We are so comfortable having all of these conveniences that we live in fear of losing them. What if these things weren’t available to us as readily as they are today?
What brings this subject to mind is my car, which is becoming a rather prolific source of blog fodder lately. It has had a vibration, been noisier than usual and a rather alarming clunking sound has gotten worse over the last week. It has gotten to the point that I was a little afraid to drive the thing. It had to go into the shop. I have no backup vehicle. I live on the outskirts of a small city where a vehicle is a necessity if I need to do any sort of regular daily errands. Luckily we live within walking distance of the school, but the city center and all of my kid’s activities are a 20-minute drive away. Writing all of this down illustrates how incredibly fortunate we are. Today, however, I will be practicing misfortune.
Practicing misfortune is one of the basic exercises of stoicism. To practice misfortune, a person gives up the trappings of his convenient life and lives as a beggar, hobo, or homeless person for a day or two each month. This experience puts into stark relief what he may have been complaining about in his own relatively posh life. It may also bring to light an opportunity that had been missed or a new way of looking at a problem. It most certainly forces the person to be grateful for his position in life.
One of the theories behind practicing misfortune is that anxiety and self-doubt have their roots in fear. It is the fear of losing our comfortable status that holds us back from taking the risks that would lead us to become the best version of ourselves. If we practice living the worst case scenario we lose our fear of it and so move beyond our hang-ups.
Practicing misfortune may involve the boss disguising himself to work amongst people in the warehouses for a week. It may be rough camping in the backcountry. Or living as a homeless person would live for a day or two. Try dressing in shabby clothes and going somewhere you would normally dress up for, like church, a high-end restaurant, or a business meeting. What would life be like if you were confined to a wheelchair? Or couldn’t speak for yourself?
How would people treat you differently? What amount of compassion would you learn if you practiced these things? How would your perspective change? Are there hardships or benefits that you hadn’t anticipated? It is my opinion that people who create the policies that dictate how those less fortunate live should put themselves in the less fortunate’s shoes for a time.
Practicing misfortune is very similar to practicing gratitude except for practicing gratitude is a mental exercise and practicing misfortune involves actually experiencing misfortune. It is immensely important to practice gratitude daily, but practicing misfortune occasionally has the unique ability to change your perspective beyond the scope of your imagination. It is a true reality check.
In this sense, practicing misfortune isn’t a hardship to endure, but a freeing exercise packed with potential. What is the downside to taking a risk? Once you experience the worst case scenario for yourself it loses its power. Suddenly you realize that even if the worst happens it is likely easily remedied or not as bad as you would have thought.
How can you practice misfortune in your own life?
Maybe you can’t take a few days out each month to live off the grid or experience homelessness, but you could do so occasionally. Go camping in a tent without modern comforts a few times a year. If that’s too wild for you, maybe you could have a no power night in which you live without WiFi, television, convenient cooking methods, and lights. Still too much? Try leaving your phone at home for a day. Or maybe, like me, you could do without your car for a day or two.
It will not be easy for me to be without my car for very long. The situation is fraught with uncertainty. I will need to be creative and have a growth mindset to get everything I need to do done. My misfortune is that my independence will be temporarily taken away from me. I can’t just go where I want to go. I will have to ask for help, something I’m not comfortable doing. If the car needs to be at the shop past 4:00 pm I will have to call a Lyft, rent a car, or enlist the help of a very accommodating friend to get my kid to and from her gymnastics practice clear across town. This is not my idea of fun and certainly inconvenient, but really not that big of a deal in the scope of things. Once I open my mind up to possibility and stop freaking out over what-ifs, the situation actually becomes not that big of a deal at all.
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