Why Do We Choose to Suffer?

"The strenuous life tastes better." --William James

* * *

Effort is the currency of endurance sport and of course of life itself.

There is a thin but essential line between effort and suffering -- at the maximum intensity of effort, this line is thinnest, but the thinness of that margin makes the difference between the two all the more evident.

I have been pondering the sources of human effort lately in no small part because my life has become more demanding. I find myself working long hours and coming home to a busy house. There are few moments in my life in which effort is absent, and yet I find myself more capable than ever of giving effort.

Is this what distinguishes effort from suffering? Effort is the sort of act that leads to the growth of the feeling of will and power. Fatherhood feels very much like this, an activity -- when it goes well -- in which our actions lead us to feeling fuller and more capable. A good job that matches our capabilities also seems to have this sort of spiraling effort feedback loop, in which our efforts lead to growth in capacities, an ability to give even greater effort.

Suffering, at its root, is the opposite sort of loop. It's what happens when effort dissipates and leaves us feeling less capable, more diminished. At its extremes, suffering requires self-destruction on behalf of survival, as when a trapped animal chews through its own leg in order to free itself. That's a gruesome image of overt suffering, but the human animal is capable of similar sorts of psychic mutilation when it finds itself similarly trapped.

When we race and train, we play on the boundary between the positivity of effort and the negativity of suffering. The best races have this strange effect where effort finds itself almost magically in a positive feedback loop, where our success in taking risk brings with it a rush of adrenaline and a feeling of confidence that allows us to break through capacities and boundaries of performance we thought were fixed.

But just as often a risk hurts us, and we find ourselves in the realm of suffering -- a realm in which every turn we take leads to more pain of some sort. Once the veil of suffering has been pierced, all that's left is to decide whether to keep going or to stop, each angle, each glance seems likely to bring more pain. We feel like trapped foxes staring at that damned leg.

Let's not move too quickly, though: to draw parallels between suffering in a race and suffering in life is to conflate fiction with reality. Suffering in a race is always metaphorical -- no matter how much it actually hurts us or even injures us. We do it out of an excess of life, in same way that works of fiction are in excess of reality, no matter how deeply they shine the light on reality. Reading a novel or a work of philosophy is never the same as living a life or having a philosophy -- the stakes are not the same.

Maybe this distinction allows us to frame an answer to a perennial question that distance runners ask themselves, especially after bad races. Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we choose to suffer? Part of the answer, of course, is that we are looking for the high of effort but like junkies sometimes overdose on effort and land ourselves in trouble. But I think that we also choose to suffer. Because of the fictional nature of suffering in sport, there is a way in which we can enjoy it. Like a powerful novel, the realer it is, the more it hurts, the more we appreciate it. This appreciation is not necessarily enjoyment (do we read Joyce or Faulkner for enjoyment?) but something else.

We do it because it allows us to to make an encounter with suffering, not to be overcome by it -- which is what happens with actual suffering in the real world. To live reality is as different from understanding reality as life is from philosophy. Racing gives us an embodied way of doing philosophy: we encounter pain; we encounter suffering; we encounter dire choices. And then we come away from them just as we come away from reading a profound novel or a well-constructed argument -- with an enriched sense of reality and a deeper notion of life that in turn helps us deal with the actual and inevitable diminishments of human experience that we live directly.

To sum up in a sentence: racing turns suffering into an experience of effort. Through the encounter with suffering, we have the chance of taking collapse and turning it into growth. Gillian Welch sings it this way: "There's something good in a worried song / For the troubles in your soul / For a worried mind / Is a long way down / Down in a deep dark hole." The worried song allows the worried mind to encounter itself as a subject of art. Suffering in a race allows us to encounter our own suffering as a conscious and even brave act.

And so, in this way, the virtual and the real find themselves as partners, not antagonists, and we find ourselves as real beings who are also able to take flight from the world in order to return to it, more capable of effort and also more capable to face suffering. Even if in the end we will never be able to fully endure actual and real, we can at least know it, which is better than nothing.


  1. Jeff,

    Great read...two persnickety questions though
    -your description of suffering in relation too running sounds almost identical to the Aristotelian conception of catharsis through mimesis in the Poetics (Greek tragedy is a metaphor for experience that allows the viewer to feel renewed). By using the term suffering instead of catharsis are you trying to draw a distinction or merely using a more approachable term? Suffering to me seems to be a unavoidable condition we all will find ourselves in at times whereas, catharsis implies a temporary suffering undertaken for the purpose of renewal(suffering has to be endured catharsis is a choice).
    -likewise I agree effort can have the effects you describe although my question is not the hallmark of effort that it is a conscious choice given despite the outcome? In fact is our own effort better judged when things are going well or when/after we are faced with failure?


  2. You're not actually "suffering," you're just being dramatic about a voluntary level of effort that doesn't come close to real suffering.

    Calling any of these indulgences "suffering" is a total insult to people and beings who really do have it unbelievably bad in life and actually do suffer in unimaginable ways. You're just a spoiled, overfed, self important Westerner, when it comes down to it. You don't have any idea what "suffering" really is. And that goes for every other drama queen who thinks they are a hero for pinning a number on their shirt and paying an entry fee.

    1. I didn't know anyone had ownership over the meaning of the word "suffering"

  3. As someone who has written and been critiqued by comments like "Anonymous" above, I want to take the time to tell you thank you for this post. Maybe he/she missed this line: "Suffering in a race is always metaphorical -- no matter how much it actually hurts us or even injures us." I ran my first 50 mile race this past weekend and yes, I suffered but I also knew it was not comparable to real life situations. I can relate to so much of what you said and if that makes me a "spoiled, overfed, self important Westerner " in the eyes of others--so be it. One thing I walked away from after my ultra was the realization: the negative opinions of others of me don't matter. Not one little bit.

  4. Good conversation here -- I see the points being made about suffering, and I certainly could have been clearer about what I meant. However, I will bite the bullet on this one: I think that if the experience of suffering cannot be emulated, then our chances for empathy are slim to none, so I want to resist the point that Anonymous is making. It is not often that we associate suffering with choice (hence the question that motivates this piece) and so it does seem like a logical flaw to present suffering as a consequence of a choice.

    But, I do think there are times when we choose to suffer -- even consciously so -- and in part we do so in order to learn how to manage what suffering life doles out to us and perhaps also so that we can recognize it and respond to it.

    Sometimes the only thing we learn from that suffering is to portray ourselves as heroes for overcoming it, and I agree with Anonymous that this reaction to suffering can be annoying. But I think that the allure of racing, part of what keeps us coming back, is the rich depth of experience that the experience of suffering promises.

    Anyways -- from a certain point of view art is an indulgence. From another point of view art is a necessity. I think the latter point of view is the broader one, more conducive to empathy, more tolerant of others, and more capable of responding in multiple ways to suffering -- in ourselves or in others.

  5. I really enjoyed this piece, Jeff. Thanks for sharing. Anytime we get into conversation about what does or does not constitute suffering, things can get tricky really quickly, but I think you negotiated those details with an impressive and unmatchable prowess. Kudos.... and again, thank you.

  6. Nice work, Jeff. Is the last miles of a marathon suffering? Yes, it fits one of the definitions listed under "suffer" in the dictionary. It's temporary, and we can end it if we want, but it's suffering. Is it the same as someone suffering from something they can't control (like disease, injury, oppression, and imprisonment)? No. But that doesn't mean you can't explore the topic and use the term suffering. If you your force the definition of a word to mean only (e.g) one of its twelve listed definitions, because of your belief system, then that's intellectual dishonesty. You haven't done that in this essay. Near the end of my first marathon, as I ran on fumes, the thought occurred to me that maybe the reason I was putting myself through that was that was my life had become too easy, and lacked struggle and pain. I often wear as a badge the fact that I endured such pain on purpose, and more than one time. But that's okay, we have to have some stories to tell. Thanks again for your fine writing.

  7. The sprinter and the middle distance runners I think suffer the least; now, ultra runners I think suffer a little more. Although not that badly unless don't take care of themselves.

    Now as to people who are not Over-fed and suffer - unlike morality - I think it's relative.

    There is a base line morality across all cultures that makes it objective and not subjective --- If you'd I'll go downtown to find someone to steal your bank account.

  8. Great post. It's always interesting to consider why we as runners choose every day to continue to run and endure pain and suffering. A curious subject, I guess all runners are indeed curious subjects


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