“Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but – I hope – into a better shape.” ― Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
The floorboards creaked and bowed under my weight. I stopped to move the turned over paint bucket–masquerading as exercise equipment–to the side, and hopefully to more stable slats. The soft thud of foot-up-and-foot-down became muted. I resumed stepping.
Up and down. Up and down. Up and down. For 45 minutes.
This exercise is known as step-ups, and the beauty lies in the self-explanatory name à la description à la simplicity of action. The purpose is to prepare your body for uphill walking with a weighted pack (i.e., if you don’t have easy access to a mountain or you like the convenience of working out at home).
It’s a mindless task really. For the first 15 minutes or so it’s palatable. Then it becomes brutally boring. It’s nothing like walking or hiking or running in the woods. There’s no beauty to fall into, no change of scenery or rock or roots to keep our attention focused. It’s just you and a step. It’s self-contained, repetitive, and grating on the will.
In this Facebook group I’m a part of, some of the mountaineers will do step-ups for two, three hours. They say they go a little mad.
Why? For what end?
Because they’re a little off the rocker? Probably. (I hope to join them in that madhouse someday soon, though.)
But there’s more.
This is about what the act represents: Literal steps towards mountain dreams. Because you can’t always be in the mountains, but you can train for when you do get there. Because you need to.
It’s about pain re-framed. It’s about defining your suffering, not letting it define you.
“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”― Haruki Murakami quoting a runner from a International Herald Tribune article, in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.
Suffering is our relationship to pain. It’s meaning making. We can choose to relate to the pain with purpose, even find enjoyment in it, or let it become misery.
For example, I choose to stay in shape because I know in the long-run it will be better for me. I certainly enjoy running, lifting, and climbing but not always. Some days you don’t want to be active–no way, hell no–but that long-term vision gets me out there more often than not because I’m pretty sure my future self is going to thank me. And lo and behold, usually after I get going I fall in rhythm and enjoy the activity.
Let’s clarify a bit further about the companions of pain and suffering.
Pain is the physical and mental stabbings, the body breaking down, the mental fatigue. It is an inevitable part of life, especially if you’re into long distance running (as Murakami is) or have any sort of human relationship ever.
(For example, I’ve had a few parents now tell me a similar narrative, “Your children are your greatest love and joy, and they are guaranteed to break your heart.” You don’t get one (love) without the other (heartbreak)).
Suffering on the other hand is the story we tell ourselves about the pain. This narrative very quickly usurps the discomfort and frames the entirety of the experience.
Pain Is Temporary, Suffering Can Last a Lifetime.
Therein lies the crux of it: How we relate to suffering matters more than the pain itself because it becomes the experience.
Nothing Lost, Nothing Gained. Or Rather, Never Really Lived.
We like to think that one of our primary drives is to reduce pain. But what do you make of all the people that actively go seek it out?
Ultra-runners, mountaineers, triathletes… These are long and grueling activities that no one describes as “fun” during the event itself. Only afterwards, upon reflection, does satisfaction permeate. Their pain is reframed into an appreciation of a project completed after a whole lot of work, and it brings a smile to one’s face.
These athletes often talking about feeling most alive during their events.
Why is that? In part, pain evolved to bring you to your senses, to make you acutely aware of what’s going on inside and around you. Pain helps you to live in the present.
What does this say about our values hierarchy as a species?
For one, maybe we care more about accomplishment and personal growth than mitigating pain.
Think of it this way, the only time you don’t experience pain is when you’re dead. Maybe if you’re not experiencing pain you’re not really living.
Be Mindful of What You Spend Your Energy On
In this day and age, we say we want an easy life, but the irony is that we don’t really give a shit about something that comes without effort. What we spend our time on inevitably has meaning for us, and the harder we work, the more it matters.
Psychology backs this up, the Sunk Cost Fallacy suggests you are more willing to commit to something you’ve already invested in. The more energy you dedicate to something, the more devoted you feel towards it.
Perhaps in some small way that’s why people choose to spend so much time in their job. Because it’s the easy, most obvious thing to commit yourself to (wrongly or rightly).
The questions you might want to ask yourself: Are you clear with what you are trying to achieve at the end of this hard work? Is this something worth experiencing pain for? How are you framing your relationship to the pain?
One Small Step at at Time
“Man, the bravest of animals and the one most accustomed to suffering, does not repudiate suffering as such; he desires it, he even seeks it out, provided he is shown a meaning for it, a purpose of suffering.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche
The room heats up and there’s a heaviness to the saturated air. The weathered light from the hanging bulb casts long shadows about the room. Sweat pools on my back where the backpack sits. In a short while I take a quick break to crack open a window.
In the cool breeze I think of the pain and boredom, then of the majesty of mountains, and go back to take the next step.
Photo source: Mountain Life