The Importance of Pain

10 Sep

Suffering is something we all share. Pain, specifically, bridges all cultures, socio-economic strata, GPS coordinates, religions, and political affiliations. Everyone from Bill Gates and Madonna to clutzy kids and cranky old folks has stubbed their toe and knows it hurts. We’ve all experienced pain and, with precious few exceptions, we all hate it.

Our universal connection to pain is what appalls us when we learn our governments are involved in the torture of prisoners. We are horrified by the inflicting of pain on the helpless, and no matter how bad they might be, once captive, every prisoner is helpless. The purposeful infliction of pain on another strikes us as, if not pure evil, the act of a disturbed person.

As such, pain’s ubiquity has long undermined the notion of a just and merciful deity. Long before the Christian era began, Epicurus taught us that the pervasiveness of evil, evident by such things as torture, proves the fallacy of any god’s omnipotence or goodness. To this day, theists wrestle with, what C.S. Lewis called The Problem of Pain. God never explained to Moses or through the Evangelists or in the Qur’an why the world is rife with pain and suffering. It just is. If you’re religious, you have to suck it up and pray (literally) that there’s a good reason for it. If you’re not, it’s just another reason to question the idea of an all-powerful being kindly watching over us.

Minimizing pain is what many people afflicted with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, trigeminal neuralgia, multiple sclerosis, lupus, and other diseases do every day. How much am I willing to hurt today? That’s a question they answer before deciding to go shopping, attend a party, or see a movie at the cinema. Avoiding pain is an elemental part of our evolutionary success even for those who cannot.

Yet, many of us intentionally inflict pain on ourselves through sports and training. We rationalize the suffering we endure as part of a process that makes us faster, stronger, and healthier and, we hope, able to live longer. “No pain, no gain,” we quote to one another after a particularly brutal exercise session. We make fun of our suffering on the field. “Give blood. Play rugby,” footballers quip.

Ironically, pain is an essential part of any plan to improve one’s physical condition. If we haven’t pushed our bodies until our muscles ache, we think we’re no better off than before we started exercising. If our lungs aren’t gasping for air, then we haven’t worked out hard enough. Pain is a measuring stick for our well-being.

When I’m cycling I push myself hard on each ride so that at least once my legs are barking at me to stop or I am breathing so hard it hurts to inhale. But I press on.

Why? Why do I persist?

Trust me, it’s not because I get pleasure from the pain. It hurts. I want it to stop, but I keep going. If I have trained well enough that I can conquer a given hill or distance without pain, I pick a steeper hill or a longer ride. Maybe I’m addicted to the endorphins that are said to kick in at certain exercise thresholds. Perhaps it’s just my ego battling myself, always trying to outdo what I’ve previously accomplished.

Or, maybe I’m engaged in a futile project to ward off death by getting in good health. Maybe I embrace suffering as a way to spit in the eye of a deity that would include pain in an “intelligent design” of the universe.

I wish I knew why because I’m about to leave for another ride today. My riding partner and I have a long one planned with lots of hills in store. My legs, butt, and back will all complain mightily during and after. It bodes to be a cruel ride.

I can’t wait.

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3 Responses to “The Importance of Pain”

  1. Lee Fowler September 10, 2010 at 11:11 am #

    This is an especially twisted subject for me. I totally agree with you on the desire to push oneself to one’s physical limits. A mere six mile hike with little elevation gain is no longer satisfying. But with my everyday battle with pain, I now find myself weary at times. Understandable yes, but difficult. And don’t even get me started on the religious thing. Hope your ride was everything you hoped for.

  2. gevin shaw September 11, 2010 at 10:33 am #

    What we buy cheaply we little value? (Where does that leave gifts?)

    While it is not true that discomfort is necessary for improvement (maybe there’s a better way of putting that), if we never overexert ourselves we can’t know by how much we fall short of what we are capable of. Another mile, a steeper hill, an earlier hour: one more “sacrifice” to set us apart, to measure our growth that lets us know we’re still in the game.

    • Mark Everett Hall September 13, 2010 at 8:10 am #

      Gevin–You bring up the idea of sacrifice, which I completely missed. It’s a vital part of our thinking about pain. We sacrifice for others (or ourselves) in hopes that something better will result from our pain. We watch others sacrifice for us by bearing their pain with dignity and without complaint. It is, after all, the main message of the New Testament and, not coincidently, I believe, the way in which soldiers’ lives/jobs are described by craven politicians who benefit most from the work of the military.

      I should have chatted with you before I wrote this post and gave more thought to the notion of sacrifice & pain.

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