Thursday, 19 August 2010

Painful - in a good way?

The other day, rather to my surprise, I cracked the eight minutes per mile barrier for a middle-distance run — an achievement which, at sixty years of age, I’d honestly begun to think was forever beyond me.
However, I nearly didn’t. Most of the route I’d been with my running mate Ross, which had helped keep the pace up, and at the five-mile mark I noted we were on 40' 08" — just a fraction above what was required. But my legs were going, so I told Ross I thought I’d slow down for the last bit.
As soon as I’d said it, though, I realized this was my best opportunity all season, and perhaps the last chance I’d get ever, for the magic sub-8 minute pace. So instead of slowing down, I speeded up.
The next half mile actually wasn’t too bad. It was the last bit that really hurt. I’m glad no-one was with me at this stage, because the noises I was making were pretty strange! On this particular route, there’s a downhill and then a very steep uphill at the end. On the downhill, I felt physically sick. On the uphill I must have looked and sounded like a man in labour.
But despite everything, I did it. And very satisfying it was, too.
Yet here is the question I asked myself later in the week: If it hadn’t been so horrible, would it have been so satisfying?
In other words, was the pain of the moment a necessary part of the pleasure of the achievement?
And the answer I have to give, for myself in this particular situation, is that without the pain, there really would have been no gain in terms of the satisfaction achieved. Indeed, the more I have reflected on this, the more it seems to me that there is some ‘pain’ which is most definitely a good thing.
Now in case anyone gets the wrong idea, let me immediately say that most pain — and here I am talking about physical pain — is decidedly unwelcome and unpleasant. To give a trivial example, the other day I stubbed my toe whilst walking round the house bare-foot. It hurt like stink, the toe turned green and it is still sore now.
When C S Lewis wrote his classic The Problem of Pain, it was these sorts of pains he addressed — the sorts of pains from which we understandably shrink, the pains for which painkillers and anaesthetics were invented, the pains which cause us to question the existence (or at least the character) of God.
Such pains range from the mildly irritating (as with my toe) to the utterly devastating. Yet even the most bearable is a blot on our experience. As to extreme pain, it is hard to comprehend its having any point or purpose.
Yet would my recent running achievement have been the same for me if it had involved no discomfort at all? The answer is clearly no.
The same thought crossed my mind when reading a review of a book about a disastrous expedition on K2. Why, I found myself asking, would anyone put themselves through such an experience? Why not just sit at home in the warm and watch telly? But ask yourself this: Which would you rather be, the person who stayed at home, or the person who climbed K2?
Now of course the problem is, you might just wind up as the person who fell off K2 and died. But isn’t that the whole point? You can only be ‘the person who climbed K2’, if you can also be ‘the person who might have fallen off K2 to a horrible death’.
On a much smaller scale, I can only be the ‘me’ that cracked the 8-minute mile because it was thoroughly uncomfortable doing so. I could have run the same route at a much slower pace and still be as physically fit (indeed arguably fitter, given the injury possibilities), but I’m not, and I’m glad for it.
And this brings me to the theological point.
There is, as the market for Lewis’s book shows, an almost universal assumption that pain is bad. This assumption, moreover, is found as much (if not more so) amongst the irreligious as amongst the faithful. To the unbeliever, the existence of pain is a disproof of the existence of God, and if there is any acceptance of pain by those who believe, it is generally couched in terms of pain being something that may edify us through being endured, but which is an aberration which is ultimately to be transcended.
Yet I find myself convinced that this is much too simplistic. Of course I don’t want to be in pain. Much less would I want anyone else to be in pain. Yet pain which is embraced for the sake of achievement, pain which is voluntary — though none the less real for all that — enables us to become something which would otherwise be impossible for us, something which, without pain, we simply could not be.
And that raises the question of pain and eternity. Admittedly, the book of Revelation speaks of the coming kingdom as a place where there are no more tears, crying or pain. And that is surely to be welcomed. But will this be a situation where there is no more room for effort — where we cannot ever be faced with the choice to go on or go back? Actually, I hope not.
To those who are thinking at this point that this is to trivialize pain, let me simply invite you to join me on a run. Or if that sounds too much (or too easy), find something else which challenges your physical capacity. Believe me, the pain is real enough! Of course it is voluntary. Of course you can choose it or not. But have you ever wondered why, if it is such a light thing, so few people make that choice? And have you ever wondered if maybe there’s a lesson there somewhere?
Chris Rea’s Tell me there’s a heaven is, I think, one of the most powerful and moving demands for a theodicy ever penned. And I am not suggesting that the answer is simple. But I am suggesting that the apparently obvious alternative — that a world without any pain would be a better place — is itself simplistic.
It is not true to say, in an absolute sense, ‘No pain, no gain.’ Yet it is, I would argue, undoubtedly true that there are gains which are impossible without pain, and that therefore the pain in such cases, whilst real, cannot simply be dismissed as bad.
John Richardson
19 August 2010
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  1. You forget that one of the most important reasons to press on with pain is that it provides inspiration for the rest of us (especially old middle distance runners); a shout-out to the whole world that pain is a reality but that it doesn't have to defeat you.

  2. At 65+ years of age a first time walk of 411 miles was not easy going! The 'gain' of £2000 for Farm Crisis Network was one thing. The otherr was a long 'Quiet Time' of 40 days or so with not telephone or parishioners or Bishops, R.D.s etc. Why did pilgrims of old do these things? We can be cynical about indulgences etc. but the spiritual value of a set goal, time spent with the Lord and the tranquility of a simple lifestyle were a reward in themselves.


  3. The other day I discovered that the best pace in 100 degree (F) and 80% humidity weather is a 9 minute mile x 3 miles. After that you melt.

  4. A while ago there were two tv progs about Ernest Shackleton (a documentary, and then a drama with Kenneth Branagh) - they seemed to answer the obvious question of why, why, why do the kind of thing he (and the others) did: Because they had the need to prove themselves to themselves, to push themselves to the edge - each person's own edge - to see just where it lay, and maybe move beyond it; I often wonder about my beliefs, etc.: where would they be if I was in a Korean jail (as many Christians are), or about to be decapitated in a Muslim country?

  5. Shouts to the whole world that the pain is real and not make you lose and it could to defeat