Friday, December 5, 2014

Pain and Discomfort

Wednesday, uncharacteristically, my almost-5-year-old asked to go to bed early. She wanted me to put her to bed, so I laid down and snuggled with her. She snuggled in the crook of my arm, her head on my shoulder.

And it hurt, mostly because I was still sore from my bench press workout a couple days before. Which got me thinking about pain. First, there's your response to it. We have a natural aversion to pain (uh, duh). Even a little bit of pain sets my little girls off, screaming and fussing. Yet as we get older, we learn to put up with it. For instance, I was happy enough to put up with this pain, because it seemed to serve a purpose. If I pushed my daughter off my shoulder, denied her the snuggling embrace, I would set back the going-to-sleep process. So even though it was uncomfortable, and a bit painful, I endured it.

For that matter, this pain came, in the first place, from exercise, which itself is a form of enduring discomfort. Whether one is lifting weights or running or doing yoga, there are always--if you're doing it right--moments when you become uncomfortable and you would like to quit. However, you endure that pain, you push through it, and you do more of the exercise in question. You get another rep, you rest a little do another set, you run another minute, another ten minutes, another mile, you hold a pose that much longer. We do it to make ourselves better: stronger, faster, with more endurance. We embrace the pain of the moment, we even embrace the pain that comes in the days afterward, may come to enjoy it because we know the benefits it ultimately brings.

All this, of course, goes against our natural instincts. Young children don't do this--they stop running when it becomes uncomfortable. They don't even seem to know how to "push through." Many people who start exercising for the first time, they encounter the pain and they can't push through it. They encounter the post-workout pain and they decide this isn't for them. We have to learn how, and we can only learn by doing it, by stretching our boundaries.

We all do this to some extent, of course. It turned out, I discovered in the middle of Wednesday night, that my daughter was coming down with a cold. She had a miserable night, which meant that my wife and I had a miserable night. Adults, we have developed a certain stoicism. A cold is lousy, we all know that. But we don't tend to fuss and cry and make everyone around us miserable too. We keep it to ourselves, we manage as best we can.

Now, all of this can be carried to extremes. We probably all know people who won't go see a doctor no matter how sick, how miserable they are. The only way they get to a hospital is by ambulance or carried there by someone else. In the exercise world, there are people who take the maxim "no pain, no gain" to the extreme... and end up injured as a result. There's a certain truth to the phase, but it's only in the way I described earlier: we have to endure some discomfort, push past it. Real pain, in this context, is a bad thing. If you tweak your knee or injure your shoulder while lifting weights, for instance, and you keep on exercising because, you know, "no pain, no gain," you're actually just going to further injure yourself, which will keep you out of the gym longer, which will limit your gains. Likewise, while it may be appropriate in your run-of-the-mill illness to "don't be such a baby," to keep a stiff upper lip and keep working through it or avoid burdening your family or friends with your complaints, we can also make things worse if we don't treat an illness.

In the end, it all comes down to moderation, and the wisdom to find it.


  1. After posting, I was tempted to ask more, but my thoughts are so inconclusive, and that seemed like a good place to end. Still:

    Of course, there's more to pain than this. My mother, at age 77, is enduring chronic pain. Chronic pain is becoming more and more prevalent in the modern world. Very often, it ends up being treated with drugs, which is understandable, but also problematic, because we often fail to discover the underlying cause or causes. We treat pain as a thing in and of itself--which is easy to do, since it announces its presence so undeniably. But pain is rarely just a thing that exists for its own sake. Usually there is something underlying that causes the pain. Sometimes, that thing can't be addressed, and it makes sense to just treat the pain. Other times, though, we don't look hard enough, because it's easier to just mask the pain. There aren't easy answers, of course. If there were, doctors and patients themselves would likely find them. I wish I had something, something more than frustration with treating only the symptoms, but what is there?

  2. I have a lovely book on prayer that talks in a couple chapters about the roles of pain and fear -- that they are both signals that something might be wrong and we ought to reflect and assess. It goes on to say that when we have put in a reasonable effort of reflection and assessment, and no clear action is indicated or it is clear that no helpful action is possible, it is time to set aside the rumination and move on to other things.

    That's kind of what goes on with pain in exercise or in the bedtime situation -- the pain makes you take notice, and you assess whether something needs to be done about it (or whether anything CAN be done about it) or not, and then you either act or move on.