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June 4th, 2021

If the odds are against you, then you have to do something that is rare, literally. All this means is that something unusual, different and unexpected is more likely to work. Inevitably, this means something counter-intuitive, and a better way to think about that is as something that doesn’t necessarily ‘feel right’.

Take for instance poverty and fasting. Fasting has become trendy in health circles, and for good reason - there are tremendous benefits to fasting. There are short term cognitive benefits and long term benefits for the body and for longevity.

Now think for a moment about the overlap between trendy health circles and poverty? We can’t imagine there’s much overlap at all. Poverty is well correlated with unhealth. Robert Sapolsky details the neurological implications of poverty and how chronic stress creates an interlinked cascade of poor health outcomes. One aspect of chronic stress as induced by poverty is decision making ability. The chronically stressed individual is far less likely to think about the long term and constantly optimize for short term gains. Another ramification of chronic stress is a predilection for unhealthy food, which is unfortunately also a lot cheaper, generally, than healthy food. The idea of fasting and genuinely entertaining it’s potential benefits just doesn’t have a high likelihood of occurring as something worth seriously entertaining for someone who is chronically stressed.

But think about how fasting could impact the mind, body and health of someone who is chronically stressed. As mentioned there are short term cognitive benefits. Fasting can sharpen and deepen one’s ability to focus and in some sense clarify one’s attention. On top of this it saves time and money, both things that are generally stretched to their limit for someone trapped within the maze of poverty. Money could be saved to then buy healthier food which can be purchased less often. All of this is rather counter-intuitive. It just doesn’t feel ‘right’, even though it makes sense. In terms of how it feels, it’s about as uncomfortable as it would seem to be cruel if you told a poor person to take up fasting. But as weird as it seems, it would be a decent suggestion if it wasn’t taken as an insult.

We can examine a slightly more improved situation and still find counter-intuitive benefits. Take for instance someone who isn’t as poor but who is holding steady so to speak. Rent gets paid, there’s plenty to eat, but that’s pretty much it. The work has no chance of social mobility, no promotions, just more of the same work. And now let’s say this person wants to better their life, switch careers with the hope to make more money and do something more fulfilling. What’s a person to do if all time and money is already spent in order to just keep living? One avenue is to realize that the cost of rent is not an absolute. Our newly ambitious individual could move into a van, save all the money that would normally go to rent, or start working part time since costs have suddenly decreased by a huge fraction and devote the extra time to learning new skills for a new career. Again, the odds were against the person who is living pay check to pay check, but that trap of treading water can be short circuited with an unusual rearranging of circumstance. A public parking space is free, even if bylaws make living in one a bit of a questionable and grey area. Again, it doesn’t feel right to give up one’s roof an shelter, but doing so creates a lot more leverage.


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