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June 19, 2017

Five Reasons to Use Imaginary Suffering as an Avenue to Gratitude

First World Problems

The title of this post is probably only suitable to the First World. I don’t deny that we in the West suffer at times, but suffering does not define our lives as it has and does for so many.

I also want to pause and say that if you experience irrational, paralyzing fears and panic attacks, this post is not for you. Stop reading. Watch a cute video.

There is a practice that has helped me to grow in thankfulness and contentment that I believe could be very helpful to others. It has come as a result of my (over)active imagination, but only recently has it been beneficial as I have learned to couple this imagination with purpose.

Simply explained, I like to daydream not only about good futures but about the worst possible futures. In a sense, I foster waking nightmares, and I don’t think this is a bad thing.

Pensive, analytical people already know about this phenomenon. It comes more naturally to some of us than to others. While it is tempting to park yourself in negative thoughts when they come, I urge you to take control, pursue these thoughts on occasion, and use them as only momentary detours on your way to a more thankful thought life.

Here are five reasons I recommend developing the habit of suffering in your imagination:

1. Imaginary suffering can grow your contentment.

I am a singer. Singing has been key to my life and work in the world.

An appropriate waking nightmare for me is cancer of the throat. A more outlandish version is riding a bicycle into a lately spotted horizontal cable of some kind that destroys my larynx. If I lost the ability to sing, I would be a wreck. I would mourn that loss quite deeply.

Imagining this helps me to not take my voice for granted.

2. Imaginary suffering can help you focus on other assets.

Hypothetical loss keeps you from placing all your hope on one strength or job or relationship. You may be motivated to learn something new or develop skills in which you’ve only dabbled. If I lost my voice, I like to think I could build a new life revolving only around thinking and writing.

By the way, as this principle applies to relationships I am *not* recommending that you foster backup people in case something happens to your spouse. You should be “all in” on your marriage, but it is still good to recognize that you have other friendships and family members that you should not neglect. I for one know I haven’t been a great friend since I got married. I need more bro dates.

3. Imaginary suffering can give you the compassion to help others.

I don’t encourage heartlessly comparing your life to that of someone less fortunate. Compassion and empathy, however, are virtues worth cultivating, so it is good to put yourself in someone else’s shoes without a condescending attitude.

Do you ever catch yourself envying others? Realize, then, that there are people in the world who envy someone at your exact station in life. You might think you’d benefit from the million dollars that belongs to someone else, but there are people who may benefit from the fifty dollars that belongs to you.

4. Imaginary suffering can help you prepare for the real thing.

To imagine suffering is to create a situation for which you do not wish (unless you have some kind of masochistic disorder). As long as you don’t remain stuck dreading life’s possibilities, this exercise can lead not only to gratitude for your current life but to the courage that will be necesssary when your circumstances change.

Change is inevitable, so why not first live it out in your mind?

5. Imaginary suffering is a means to more creativity.

Fictional plots must have a crisis. Perhaps all of the greatest literary and cinematic fiction examines suffering itself, so we are in good company when we allow or even force our minds to wander to the bleak, tragic, and even terrifying.

So am I crazy, or am I on to something? I wish you pleasant daydreams – and many waking nightmares.

Just don’t stay there.

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p.s. In this Thursday’s post (June 22, 2017), I’ll write about another skill that I call the “Phantom Taste Ability.” This is the skill to sense beneficial things that are missing, which is useful in everything from writing to business to parenthood. I hope you’ll come back for more.

p.p.s. Of course, thankfulness and gratitude must have an object – a force or an entity to whom one is grateful – but that is a truth for another post and perhaps a different site.

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