Too Many Bad Days? Expand Your Range of Discomfort
We’ve known this for thousands of years.
I woke up today like I had erased all of the progress I had been making over the last few months. I was groggy, moody, and felt a sense of overwhelm and meaninglessness. By doing the work anyway, I made a breakthrough I want to share with you to use on your bad days.
Just last week, I woke up each day energized, full of life, and meaning-driven. Once again, I thought I had it all figured out. To fall back to what feels like square one is disheartening, but not if I look a little closer at what is going on.
On some level, I know that the bad days will always be there. Bad days are a part of the fluctuations of life. However, if you have too many of them in a row, this is what they want to teach you:
The Unavoidable Human Condition
Jeff Bezos might have a shit day today because he didn’t make as many millions as he expected. On the other hand, an impoverished farmer in South Sudan might be having a wonderful day because their government didn’t confiscate their entire crop yield.
Moreover, if you switched the farmer and Bezos, the farmer would be really happy for a little while, then their expectations would adjust, and they would eventually go back to having good days and bad days. Bezos, now a farmer in South Sudan, would go through a rough patch (maybe really rough) but if he hung on, he would eventually adjust and go back to having good days and bad days. Human beings are really adaptable.
We all know this on some level, but I just want to really highlight it for you so that I can use it to make a couple of points.
All bad days and few good ones for a long period of time could be called depression. Thinking about it in the frame of the thought experiment above, what is really going on here? Shouldn’t a depressed person just get used to their situation and go back to baseline?
In a lot of cases, depression is the result of unfulfilled potential. On some conscious, or even unconscious level, you know that you are not living up to the person you could be. This could be because of fear, or lack of confidence, or whatever. The point is, somewhere inside you, you know you could do better.
That’s why it won’t make you feel better to compare yourself to people worse off than you. They may be born in worse circumstances, but at least they are living their lives to the fullest. The farmer in South Sudan isn’t afraid to do his absolute best to make sure his family is fed and his kids are a little better off than him.
The science backs this up, too. People living in terrible poverty have a very conspicuous lack of cases of depression and suicide. Most people in the west shrug their shoulders at this fact, but I think there is something very important to learn from it. Something that can make our lives better.
The comfort trap.
In the west, we have been tricked into thinking life is about comfort when it is really about finding meaning. Meaning comes when you try your best with everything in you to create a better world for those around you.
The reason you feel bad is you are afraid to try your best because your best is so goddamn enormous. If you are a westerner, you have so much power at your fingertips that it can be too much to bear. Power of choice, of influence, of potential. You could choose to be a lawyer in Seattle, or a novelist in Maine. Both are inside of you, and to pick one is to kill the other. It’s not easy.
And that’s what you see all around you. People afraid to try their best because they don’t want to find out what they are really made of, so they hide behind comforts and addictions in full flight from life. Instead of choosing to be one great thing or another, they choose neither in a truly tragic non-choice. They are like the cow that dies of thirst standing halfway between water and food.
Do you know what you’re made of? Really?
The Only Solution We Know
The solution is as old as the oldest religions. We have known for a really long time, and we forget, over and over. Here’s one way to phrase it: seek discomfort. Here’s another: bear your cross. And another: life is suffering. And one more: we are Sisyphus pushing the boulder up a hill for all eternity.
All of them are from different wisdom traditions from all around the world, and they all say the same exact thing. It is the thing I learned today, probably for the 1000th time: Face the darkness willingly.
Here’s what they mean, practically: do something hard, publish something even if it scares you, take the risk of getting hurt, push yourself beyond your comfort zone. Only you know what this means for you.
For me, it means writing when I’m afraid I can’t write anymore. It means continuing to make my friends happy, even if I’m afraid it will make me vulnerable. It means continuing to learn, even if I have to unlearn something that helped me in the past.
It doesn’t have to be horrible. Discomfort can be fun.
How to trick your brain to make discomfort fun:
You know people who love to exercise? They have not only done a good thing for themselves physically, they have also acquired spiritual wisdom, whether they know it or not. They have made discomfort fun. They are Sisyphus, but they are smiling.
You can trick your brain, too. You just have to keep going. You know to have faith that it will get better. Do you know that I hated writing for the first few years? And then still, sometimes, I hate it? It’s hard and it takes everything I’ve got, but I’ve learned to love it.
You love it because you know it saves you from future suffering. If you are wise, you know that life is suffering, and you are going to suffer either way, so it might as well be something you choose. Instead of it being some distant thing you are afraid of and want to avoid at all costs, you know that it is here, now. And you are strong enough to take it.
How to find meaning in suffering:
Tricking your brain into enjoying the hurt is only part of the puzzle. The other part is meaning. Giving away everything to make other people happy.
When I learn something the hard way, I know I have to give it away. That’s where I get my meaning from. If I am in an unwise and negative frame of mind, I might trick myself into thinking that I need to keep what I have to myself. I earned it, after all.
The wise person gives away everything they have in every moment they are alive. They know that in exchange, they get meaning, which is far better than any piece of comfort or advantage over others.
When you start to seeking discomfort voluntarily and gain meaning from giving away everything you learn, you slowly build confidence in yourself. You align with the truest vision of who you should be, and this makes you more and more powerful. No more unfulfilled potential.
We literally do not know the upper limits of this. There is no telling how much good you could do if you started this process. Suffering no longer seems cruel and arbitrary, and you learn to handle tragedy with grace. People rely on you, and you life becomes maximally meaningful.
I believe that a life lived this way is a full life, and when it is time to go, it will be OK. We can die knowing that we fully lived.
Ask yourself good questions.
Think forward to your deathbed. What do you wish you did? Do that. What is the most beautiful life you can imagine? Find out what it’s like to live it.
Those are good questions to ask yourself.
Here are some bad ones: What’s wrong with me? Why do I keep fucking up? Am I stuck like this?
Our thoughts are just asking ourselves questions and trying to answer them. If you ask bad questions, you will get bad answers in return.
Knowledge — Experience — Belief
We have known this stuff for a really long time. Wise people have been finding ways to put it in their own words over and over. There is something to be learned from that fact in itself: it’s important to rephrase and relearn until things sink in deeply.
Keep on taking in knowledge. It is not pointless and it is not doing nothing. Trust that you are growing a little each time you take in wisdom in a slightly new way.
Take it in enough times and eventually, you will experience the wisdom. It will help you through a hard time, or you will use it to help a friend, or you will write an article that helps thousands of people. It will sink in a little deeper still.
The next time you take in the knowledge, it will hit you in a different way. It will make more sense, and since you can better justify the effort based on your experience, you will pay closer attention.
Over time, the right things will eventually become beliefs. They will sink into your body, and you will behave as if they are true. This is when your entire life will change. Be patient. The change is coming.
Keep reading, keep reflecting, keep growing.
Seek discomfort. Keep learning. Trust that you are growing, even when you can’t see it.
Bad days are OK. Listen to what they need to teach you, and always keep growing.
Thanks for reading.