My mum passed away when she was 54. I was in my early twenties and her death from kidney failure (with cancer being the underlying cause) impressed upon me a number of things. Firstly, I decided to try to look after my health better and to minimise stress where possible. And secondly, I decided to make better decisions to live a happier and more fulfilling life. While I am up and down with my success in achieving this, my desire to try be more healthy is a big influence on my day to day decision making. And my desire to improve my decision making has led me to read more in an effort to assimilate this desire to be more healthy. Taking in as much as I can, I’m hoping to get to the point where the decisions I make lead to a more balanced life without too much (self inflicted) pain.
‘Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.’ is an interesting proverb that I keep on my monitor at work. It reminds me that I have a choice about suffering, and how ending that suffering is only a decision away. On reflecting on the sometimes fleeting, sometimes chronic and sometimes mysterious pain I feel, I see that my thoughts shift as much as the pain itself.
Put scientifically, the Pain Australia organisation defines pain as : “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage” The International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP).
Like most people, I strive to fulfill the desire to be healthy. I grew up in a fit family and started gymnastics when I was four. When I was 11, I was in the elite stream and spent 24 hours a week in the gym. One benefit of being a gymnast was the relatively easy transition into comparable sports such as trampolining, tumbling and diving. While pursuing so much sport kept me super fit, it also kept me really busy, leaving little spare time for study (which I now know to be a real shame because I never realised how deep my desire to learn was until I was much older). Anyways one of the negatives of doing gymnastics is that it’s a sport with such a desire for perfection it requires extreme dedication and single minded focus. Attaining that intensity of focus from a young age was something I strived for with all the strength I could muster, and I sometimes wonder if this has warped my mind, leaving me with a somewhat skewed sense of self and a odd set of measures for success. Now it may be that I’m just wired that way – who can say, but perhaps a coach repeating to youngsters that ‘practice doesn’t make perfect – perfect practice makes perfect’ isn’t the healthiest of brain foods. Who knows? but after years of repetition, conditioning and pushing through pain, I’m fairly sure I have mastered the art of blocking out pain – to my own detriment.
Interestingly, my Traditional Chinese Medicine woman’s daughter was an elite gymnast competing at an International level when she had to retire due to a back injury. The prognosis was not good, and after several years of trying everything to relieve the chronic pain, surgery to fuse her spine is now her only option. While she is almost certainly in constant pain and avoids pain medication where possible, she is about to undergo the surgery that will grant her excruciating pain at first, but should improve her long term prospects- if they don’t sever her spinal chord in the process. Her mother, is hopeful her daughter’s mental toughness and fortitude built over her gymnastics career will assist in her recovery – I’m fairly sure it will.
Thankfully my relatively good conditioning, sporty genes, and perhaps good luck, meant I made it through my gymnastics career without any broken bones, stress fractures or hernias – like some gym friends. However, I did injure my neck quite seriously one week at gym and topped it off at trampolining sometime back in 1991. That injury is still with me, some 23 years later, having cost me a small fortune in osteopathy, remedial massage and physiotherapy. And while it doesn’t stop me for long, sometimes its complexity adds to my desire to be healthy. It certainly means I reflect a lot on the causes and conditions of pain in my body, feeding my desire to learn more and improve myself. So you can see that on one level it’s a challenge and a learning experience. But at another level – the other extreme- I find it possible to ignore a multitude of small aches and pains until they accumulate or combine to a level that is impossible to tune out from. Thankfully, it takes a lot of energy to deal with that level of tuning out and eventually I seek refuge with some remedial massage, osteopathy or Traditional Chinese Medicine.
One of my massage therapist’s favourite sayings is ‘Pain is a good teacher’, and she is right. A lot of my pain seems to come from my desire to stretch further, work harder and ignore my limitations. ‘Strength is my strength’ I tell her on the odd occasion when she wants me to relax. It is an interesting desire, this desire to be healthy – and sometimes it can fall into what Epicetus would say is an unhealthy or unnatural desire.
I’ve previously mentioned a bike accident and the turmoil it brought to my mental life. Well a lot of that turmoil was due to my inability to fulfill my desire to be physically active without causing myself physically limiting and persistent pain. If I were to view this desire under the lens of Epicetus, to extend the thinking a little further and attribute a sensory experience – I would say that pain’s desire to make us feel something is natural and necessary. Over time, I have come to see the folly of pushing through and ignoring pain, and eventually pain has become that good teacher. And after being mindful and focusing on the pain, I can now say I have a heightened sense of the difference between pain and strain. It is a much gentler way to be, and takes me further down the path of my desire to be healthy than continually breaking through boundaries and pushing through pain. Maybe the healthy balance I seek is closer than I think.