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Cultivating a Relationship with Pain

25 May 2021

Biochembelle and I are watching an extreme race show called “Race to the Center of the Earth”. I’m enjoying it. But there’s a contestant on it who annoys me. She is incredibly fit, and describes herself as “gritty”, but she is complaining constantly about pain. Now, I’m not going to try to judge her pain. I don’t know her actual physical situation or how it’s edited. But it is making me think a bit more about my own relationship with pain, voluntary suffering, and endurance.

As any longtime readers will know, I am an amateur endurance athlete these days. I have competed in many half-marathons, marathons, ultramarathons, and mid-distance and longer triathlons. I really enjoy them. And I do regular training and fun runs of up to 20 miles, hikes of many miles, and minor peakbagging. A day in the mountains with 15-20 miles and 5,000-8,000 feet of ascent does not really intimidate me any more. Nor does a 50 mile bike ride.

That doesn’t mean they’re easy. They’re not. Training and playing in the mountains, or a long effort on the bike, are fun. But they’re painful, challenging, and involve a lot of suffering, generally. During and after a long day adventuring my feet, core, legs, knees, shoulders, and crotch may all hurt. I’m tired, and my hips and back ache. I may be sunburned or chewed up by bugs. I am not infrequently bleeding. I haven’t done a lot of camping yet, but when I do, I don’t sleep well.

Now, my weightloss journey is similar. I am often hungry between meals in a way I wasn’t before. It used to be that feeling the first hunger pangs meant I would grab a snack or start preparing a meal. Now, I sit with my hunger for a while, generally. It gets stronger. I work out hungry; I delay my meal by bathing or watching a show or playing piano. Because I want to eat closer to bedtime so I’m not going to bed hungry, which is awful. But it happens sometimes.

This isn’t real suffering, of course. Not in an existential sense. But it is voluntary suffering, and the pain and challenge are real. I have come around to the emotional position that comfort kills us. Being too comfortable in life is bad for the soul. It breeds softness, gluttony, laziness, and entitlement. We need challenges in life – challenges difficult enough that sometimes we fail. Challenges that leave us half-broken whether we succeed or not. Without them, without suffering for them, we can’t achieve what we are capable of.

And the challenges need not be physical (though I definitely recommend some of that). Intellectual and emotional challenges are also crucial to development. When I was first sober I was terrified that I couldn’t hold a job – I almost didn’t apply for them. My fear of it made me too uncomfortable. I had to learn to let that wash over me and through me. To live in the discomfort of my fear. As a result of doing that many times – of taking leaps of faith and making major moves – my career is flourishing. Do allow yourself to ossify by only being exposed to comfortable thoughts and opinions you already hold.

I have come to love the pain associated with endurance. Long runs and hikes on challenging terrain are fun not only despite the pain, but because of it. Weightloss is satisfying not despite the hunger, but because of it. I am mastering this carcass that shuffles me through life. This is my body. This is my pain. This is the experience I am capable of having in this place, at this time, in this moment.

I am a thing made of edible stuff in a constant battle not to be eaten by microbes. It is a battle I will lose. While it rages on, I will thrash myself against the edges of my world, stretching the cellophane boundary of my place in it as widely as I can. I love the pain. And that is why I love my place in the world.

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