The first time someone called me a masochist I thought they were crazy. Of course I didn’t like pain. Who likes pain? Hell forget pain, I didn’t even like discomfort. I was a hedonist by most accounts. I was certainly NOT a masochist. Still it’s hard to claim this when I continually signed up for increasingly painful endurance events. So I began to argue that I didn’t do these events for the pain, I did them for the lessons and the absolute joy I got from them. I said all of these while pretending that the pain was perhaps corollary to joy and learning, but not casual. Somewhere in the last week, maybe during a midday run in 100+ Middle Eastern heat, I realized that the lessons and the joy are not parallel to pain, but rather the direct result. A sunrise is never more spiritual than after a long lonely night. Sleep has never been more exquisitely well earned than after 100 miles. Part of it is simply appreciating things, providing the contrast of pain to pleasure. I firmly believe that the greatest pains in life are equally matched, or even dwarfed by, their counterparts – the greatest joys.
Think of the greatest joys in your life? Did a single one of them come without pain? A marathon? Childbirth? A great love? A inspirational friendship? A reunion with loved ones? Yoga? Dance? Art? The only joys I can think of that don’t come with pain are books and drinks with friends on a beach. And that last one often comes with pain the next day. Pain is a part of life, every day. Every stubbed toe or stiff back. Every ignored text or goodbye. The memories of loved ones far away or even gone completely.
So why seek out pain? I remember hiking with a man a year or so ago. I’m not sure I even knew his name at the time but somewhere lost in the desert waiting for the sun to rise we ended up sharing some of our biggest scars – his life in particular had seemed full of pain. I remember thinking, why is this guy lost on a mountain with 100lbs in his pack? If he wants to suffer he should just go home and live his life. Why seek out pain when there’s seemingly an abundance of it in the world?
Because, just like anything, you need to practice pain. Willingly exposing yourself to pain allows you to practice it, allows you to control it, to cope with it. I’m not just talking physical pain. There’s some true emotional and spiritual pain associated with endurance events as well. This is the most important pain of all to practice. There’s no other way to practice but to just feel it. You can’t fight it or numb it, at least not permanently. You can only settle into the pain, understand that with every step it may get worse. It may then all of the sudden get better. The physical pain may cause the emotional pain, or vice versa. It may cause joy. It may be the first of many painful episodes, a fresh hurt destined to be by your side for years to come. It may be the final scarring of an old wound. The ways you cope with pain over the miles, the mountains, and the mud are the same ways you cope in everyday life. Settle in and start listening to what the pain is trying to teach you – about your body, your spirit, and the world you inhabit.
These lessons you learn through pain are often the ones that stick with you. A burnt hand is a visceral memory that teaches you to be cautious around fire. Serious chafing reminds you to stock up on body glide. The pain of rejection or a broken friendship reminds you to be kind with your words. The loss of a loved one makes you appreciate those you have. When someone hurts you, you learn your capacity for forgiveness and compassion – and the strength it takes to exhibit both. The lessons you learn through pain and suffering are some of the cornerstones of your character.
One of my favorite lessons is that when forced to suffer, its best tosuffer with and for others. The pain you are willing to withstand for and by yourself - for money, ego, achievement, vanity - is a fraction of the pain you are willing to suffer with and for others. There is no nobler cause than the one you take up for others. This is the idea behind Hero WODS, this is why Hero WODs are so exquisitely excruciating and why they are so often done in groups. I'm in no way equating the pain of an hour (or more) workout to the pain of losing someone, but I'm saying it's a way to practice it. It's a way to suffer and bond with others but like the bond - unbroken by death - a hero feels with his or her unit, squad, or family. It's a way to honor the sacrifice of men and women by sacrificing our time, our bodies, and most of all our comfort. Willingly withstanding pain is our small way of showing commitment and respect to a higher cause. In this case the cause is honoring the service, sacrifice, and legacy of others. It's a way to focus on the joy of knowing someone like the namesakes of these workouts. It's a way for us all to reflect on the lessons we can learn from them, ourselves, and our collective pain."
So this memorial day, if you’re so inclined, I urge you to practice a little pain. Go for a little longer run, (safely) do an extra set or extra rep. Feel the pain associated with a visit to a cemetery or a call to a Gold star family. Learn a lesson from this pain. Then be joyful. Cherish your lesson, your pain, and your joy. Know that while the pain for so many never goes away, it can and will subside. And in its place is peace and joy. So for the moment, settle into the pain.