Monday, May 19, 2014

"Pain Purifies"

Author, Haruki Murakami

Although this alliterative phrase sounds like it could have come from the lips of a 17th century Puritan - it's actually a quote from my high school cross country and track coach, Don Sleeman. I think he said it to stop us from complaining about hard workouts.  He said it a lot.

But was he right?  Does pain exist for some loftier purpose other than to merely ensure that we think twice about touching a hot stove?

I bring up this topic because I think many non-runners think that we're just a bunch of masochists.  And to be honest, if you were to come to a gathering of runners it wouldn't be odd to hear many conversations centered on pain - whether regarding injuries or workouts or races.  Many times we are more likely to talk about our failures than our successes because the descriptions of pain are so much more vivid.

Of course, I don't know whether my experience of pain is the same as Joe's - just as I don't know what the color blue looks like to Joe.  There is no objective way to measure pain - we only have our own descriptions of it - and the knowledge that everybody who has ever walked the earth has experienced pain at some time.

One way in which I think my coach was right is that it's very difficult to think about anything else that might be bothering you when you're in real physical pain.  So often we seem to suffer because our brains need something to think about - and what's most likely to focus our attention are the worries of everyday life.  Physical pain strips that all away.  Any insults we've borne through the day - real or imagined - magically disappear.  We are completely focused on the struggle that we're enduring in the moment.

Pain is also one of the strongest connections that we have with others.  In an article about pain - and how living in the age of anesthesia may change how we interact with others - Joanna Bourke quotes 19th century physician Samuel Henry Dickinson "Without suffering there would be no sympathies, and all the finer and more sacred human ties would cease to exist."  Our own experience of pain and our ability to empathize with others' pain is in some ways the basis of morality and kindness to others.  You could go further and argue that pain is the basis for society and culture - and our ability to express pain - both physical and emotional - is what makes us human.

One of my favorite books on running is a memoir by novelist Haruki Murakami called What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.  He makes the very Buddhist comment that "Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional." 

However, my favorite passage is the following:

"Of course it was painful, and there were times when, emotionally, I just wanted to chuck it all. But pain seems to be a precondition for this kind of sport. If pain weren't involved, who in the world would ever go to the trouble of taking part in sports like the triathlon or the marathon, which demand such an investment of time and energy? It's precisely because of the pain, precisely because we want to overcome that pain, that we can get the feeling, through this process, of really being alive--or at least a partial sense of it. Your quality of experience is based not on standards such as time or ranking, but on finally awakening to an awareness of the fluidity within action itself."

So pain is part of the experience - but it is not the ultimate goal.

As Christopher McDougall wrote in Born to Run - "running was mankind's first fine art, our original act of inspired creation. Way before we were scratching pictures on caves or beating rhythms on hollow trees, we were perfecting the art of combining our breath and mind and muscles into fluid self-propulsion over wild terrain. And when our ancestors finally did make their first cave paintings, what were the first designs? A downward slash, lightning bolts through the bottom and middle--behold, the Running Man.

Distance running was revered because it was indispensable; it was the way we survived and thrived and spread across the planet. You ran to eat and to avoid being eaten; you ran to find a mate and impress her, and with her you ran off to start a new life together. You had to love running, or you wouldn't live to love anything else. And like everything else we love--everything we sentimentally call our 'passions' and 'desires' it's really an encoded ancestral necessity. We were born to run; we were born because we run."

So, to return to my original question - does pain purify?  Pain is not the goal - but it is a signpost that you are headed in the right direction towards your goal.  It simplifies and strips away what's not needed.  It helps us to identify with one another. But many people lose sight of the real goal - they get stuck in pain - they make pain the defining representation of their experience.  The real goal is self knowledge of what your body is capable of doing.  It is to know that the human body is made to run. 

1 comment:

outsiderunner said...

This is an excellent piece, Ben. I am sorry for your classmates...may they rest in peace, and may we continue to run for them and for all that we love and appreciate in this world. I agree: the sense of calm and control experienced in certain runs can border on the profound.