Saturday, May 24, 2014

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.
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