Pain as a way to thrive

Posted: October 14, 2011 in Uncategorized

Fuck I miss running, miss that sensation of burning power surging in my thighs. I used to look down at my legs once in a while during a run and become thrilled and thankful that wow, I have legs that can do this. Bummer is, I injured both my feet (damn you plantar fasciitis) while training for a marathon so I can’t now spend the morning circling the river or running through a downpour (ah-mazing!). I really felt like I was getting somewhere though I only ever made complete loops. I used to run and sometimes badger myself about not going fast enough or feeling tired but then I’d get through it, I’d add on the extra mile or shave off a minute or two total (which is an accomplishment, really). I felt proud of myself, proud that I succeeded at pushing past a limit I thought I had. The body is an amazing device in this way, where one mechanism—my brain—says whoa there, no way, can’t keep doing this, while the rest of me—my legs, lungs, shoulders, arms—keeps going further further further.

The body produces endorphins during exercise, extreme joy, pain, when eating spicy food, when in love and from orgasms. Ha, I love how one of these things is not like the others. Although I suppose that pain commonly partners with the four other methods of juicing up on our own form of morphine. The what-goes-up-must-come-down reality of chemical highs (no matter how natural).

Pain fascinates me. And immediately I am disappointed with the lack of language for this complex and oftentimes nuanced human experience. Exercise pain differs wildly from love pain, or spicy food pain, or labor pain. And sex pain or phantom pain or memory pains register uniquely in the system. Pain is a dramatic word for discomfort—dramatic, yes, and also lacking. The foremost definition for pain relates to bodily injury and suffering but the “pain” or distress of working out is precisely the opposite, the body working out is in high functioning mode, fine fine machinery.

I understand the science (though it really seems like magic) of the body’s ability to function so efficiently: the blood vessels dilating to deliver more oxygen rich blood, the lungs breathing heavier to get more oxygen into the bloodstream, the stomach shutting down to not waste unnecessary energy, sweating to cool off, I get all this–but the brain’s incessant attempts to get me to quit and my ability to not quit, to keep going, this I am baffled by. Why wouldn’t I just quit as soon as my brain says, but I’m tired, you can’t do this, you’ve been going for so long, how much further, can’t you do this another day?

Well I don’t run anymore because more than just my brain were shouting. So until my arches aren’t burning in pain everyday I traverse the terrain of my brain and body quarrels via water. I took to swimming even though I didn’t really know how to and was petrified of not being able to breathe right and possibly more scared of just not doing well. I really can’t handle it when I don’t succeed at something athletically speaking (I swore off baseball and softball simply because I wasn’t good at em). When I was a kid I would go go go constantly playing football, soccer, bike riding, climbing trees, beating all the kids at races. I cannot remember my childhood as much of anything but the physical activities of my daily. I was the first in three kids to pass the physical fitness test the first year schools required it, and I was the only one of my gender (whatever that was).

Running long distances and swimming revived a force in me that I only had in childhood. Relentless energy unhampered by the weight of ideas, identity, or ideals. As a kid I didn’t ever think about not having enough energy or time to runaround or jump up and down or have a spontaneous race. I know, I know, I didn’t have responsibilities then, or anyone relying on me in any way, of course, these factors make my adult-brain work differently (by differently I mean too much). But what I’ve tapped into with swimming especially is a method of switching my brain off a bit. Or more specifically, while I am engaged in tough physical activity my brain has less power over me. That nagging voice trying to get me to stop putting my body through discomfort doesn’t win because the efficiency of my machine is in autopilot. Some days I feel I could keep swimming for hours and hours. If it weren’t for the kids waiting at home for me I probably would.

When I swim I am a powerful fish, long and lank, buoyant, determined. Swimming is my best friend, my therapist, my sleeping pill, my medicine. To deeply embed myself into my own physicality makes being more human (vs. more animalistic) bearable. What I really mean is being in my brain too much can really fuck with me and residing in my body more through exercise, sex, what have you, I can better manage my brain and it’s out of control tendency to fuck with me. Perhaps my fascination with pain stems from this: it is easy to ignore the body unless some form of pain registers there. I prefer self-inflicted pain (vs. bodily pain caused by misuse).

Pain bottom-lines action, it acts as a catalyst for change. I hunger; I make food, grow it if I must first. Disease kills too many people; we funnel brains and money and time into figuring out the cure. Computer is too huge we make it fit on a desk. Computer is too slow we make it faster faster. Computer is too big we make it fit in the palm. Discomfort ultimately resides at the root of progress. Dealing with discomfort physical, interpersonal, communal, global, constitutes perhaps eighty percent (not a real statistic, just my feel for it) of our day-to-day functions. Daily deal with back pain, or road rage, or the simple pain of not getting what you want how you want and when you want it (a real tough one for a certain kid I know). To master discomfort, or rather master a functional response to discomfort, especially of the emotional variety (for many a modern day human), is to succeed as a humanimal.

My ability to overcome my brain’s incessant nagging on my weaknesses, my triumph over this perceived discomfort, however small, carries with it the mysterious force of life itself. There is absolutely no actual good reason for life to exist except just for the hell of it. I don’t mean this nihilistically—plain and simple, there is no logic behind why anything exists, why life force happens. Science can work itself into a frenzy explaining evolution and big bang but no laboratory proof or string theory explains why. Science explains life functions as is, but not why.

Precisely why I want richer language for discussing pain, for seeing its true role in our lives, our development. I worry we remain stunted by a negative connotation for this necessary element of life. We work incessantly at eliminating pain though we strive to live better due to it. Are we trapped by the lack of nuance in our language for pain, because pain and the adjectives used to describe it—ache, agony, torment, discomfort, nuisance, etc.—are relegated to negative experiences in life therefore eliminating these sensations makes life “better.” But at what point does making life “better” turn existence into something bitter, something barely thriving?

Can we please subject ourselves to experiences that cause internal conflict, high and low natured, that are not instantly gratifying per se, because we desire life? Desire a more nuanced and textured existence? Desire to feel life force more forcefully inside us? Desire, after all, is a type of power and living is not peaches and cream. To desire is to push against the bare essentials of existence, to see an ocean and build your way atop it. Every time I hit the water—push and pull my limbs through its viscosity, struggle to go faster, breath smoother, to ultimately get absolutely nowhere—I exist for this duration exactly as life-force does, I am neither human or animal, I just exist, out of gender, merely a force working itself.

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