Saturday, 1 March 2014

Pain and Gain

“The more pain I train myself to stand, the more I learn. 
You are afraid of the pain now, Unk, but you won’t learn anything if you don’t invite the pain.  And the more you learn, the gladder you will be to stand the pain”

This is a quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan.  I was reading it this past week while relaxing on a beach in Mexico, pretty much as far as humanly possible from any sort of pain or displeasure.  It made me reflect on why we, as athletes or regular exercisers, routinely subject ourselves to activities that open the door to pain and discomfort.  Why am I motivated to do something that will hurt and leave me in a crumpled, sweaty mess on a gym floor, when the option is there instead  to recline on a beach lounger with a cool drink in hand (or at the very least, when not on vacation, on the couch with a cup of tea)?  Why is it that, despite being a nice break in the middle of winter, sitting around all comfortable on a beach gets reeeeaaalllly fucking boring!  Quickly.

The fact is that most of us, in the middle-class ‘developed’ world lead lives that are, for the most part, fairly free from pain.  Despite the constant bitching about how busy or stressful our jobs or lives are, a thorough self-examination surely leads to the conclusion that compared to the vast swath of human history, we have it pretty sweet.  I’m not denying that bad things happen, often to good people, but in the broad context we’ve crafted a society that by and large allows a good deal of comfort and freedom from genuine misery.

Many of us work jobs that have become fairly second-nature and are not overly demanding, certainly from a physical perspective at least.  We don’t have to hunt, gather and toil for our food.  Entertainment is plentiful – we’re awash is the proverbial ‘bread and circuses.’  Creature comforts are everywhere.  You deserve that Starbucks latte, you really do.  Put your feet up on that new Ottoman, you’ve had a long day....

Intense physical exertion, the kind that temporarily makes a person wish that they had never been born, seems to be an antidote to the kind of ennui that accompanies such a well-fed and well-cared for state of being.  The fact is that running a 6 minute mile, hurts.  Loading up a barbell, laying it across your shoulders and squatting down ass-to-grass, hurts.  Flipping a tractor tire in the snow, sucking cold air into your lungs, hurts.  I know, however, that by subjecting myself to that pain, hopefully I’ll learn something about myself that I didn’t know before.  I’ll know a little bit more what I’m capable of enduring.  Few things in life give you that.  And it’s a gift.

It’s a gift that’s available to all. But herein lies the trouble in convincing non-exercisers to ‘get off the couch’, so to speak.  From the perspective of someone on that side of the fence, who’s never come through and seen the benefits, exercise (at least the strenuous kind that actually pays dividends) just looks like a lot of pain.  They don’t see yet that, when that temporary pain has passed (as it always does), one emerges on the other side with a completely transformed sense of self.  It’s not invincibility or arrogance or complete fearlessness.  But perhaps it’s a little bit of fearlessness.  It’s the sense that someday, something will certainly take me down and beat me.  But it won’t be that thing.  It won’t be that weight I just lifted.  It won’t be that time I just beat.  It won’t be that pain that I just endured.

What’s great too about that Vonnegut quote is that it comes from a letter that the character, Unk, has written to himself.  He’s had his memories erased several times and is writing the message to his future self as a means of instruction and encouragement.  When the character first reads those lines he weeps because he thinks that the letter has been written by someone else who clearly has a greater pain tolerance.  He imagines someone heroic and fearless, far more so than himself.  It’s not until later that he realizes that he himself is the author, and the one that has already been capable of enduring such intense pain in the quest for truth and knowledge...a realization that makes him “courageous, watchful, and secretly free.”  I think that that’s a telling metaphor, in the sense that most people are capable of far more than they give themselves credit for.  The gym is a great place to discover that.

For the science-y among you, there’s even some data to suggest that regular exercisers show greater levels of pain tolerance than other people, even without recent exercise:
That’s significant in my mind, because it implies that once you’ve been baptized in the fire, it’s a permanent adaptation...  Something you’ve earned that can’t be taken away from you.

And speaking of Stoicism, old Marcus Aurelius has some advice in this regard:

Be like the promontory against which waves break. Am I unhappy because this happened - not a bit, rather happy am I though this has happened because I continue free from pain, neither crushed in the present nor fearing the future. Such a thing could have happened to any man, but not every man could have continued free. There is no misfortune, only the course of nature and our adaptation. What event can prevent you from being just, magnanimous, temperate, prudent, secure against opinions and falsehood? Remember when vexed that to bear misfortune nobly is good fortune.
M.A. IV.49.

That is, we might to not be able to control the things that happen to us, which are just part of nature.  What we do have the power to control however is our reaction to those events, how we respond, and our resiliency toward them.  Furthermore, Cicero writes, “For what shame, what degradation will a man not submit to in order to avoid pain, if he has once decided it to be the highest evil?”

Decided – that’s the key word.  Pain is just pain.  It’s neutral.  We choose to place either a positive or negative value on it through our interpretation.  Is this an invitation toward unbridled masochism?  I don’t think so.  But it might be a hint that pain has more to teach us about ourselves than does the siren song of perpetual comfort.

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