No Pain, No Gain: On Pain and Loss

On Sunday I completed my third Ironman distance triathlon (Challenge Atlantic City). On Monday we received the devastating news that the bodies of the three boys had been found. I also read the following summary of a speech that David Brooks had given in Aspen (the summary is on the Atlantic

“When people look forward, when they plan their lives, they say, ‘How can I plan … [to] make me happy?'” Brooks noted. “But when people look backward at the things that made them who they are, they usually don’t talk about moments when they were happy. They usually talk about moments of suffering or healing. So we plan for happiness, but we’re formed by suffering.” Like love, suffering exposes our lack of control over our lives. But it also encourages deep introspection and equips people with a moral calling. “They’re not masters of their pain, they can’t control their pain, but you do have a responsibility to respond to your pain,” Brooks explained. He gave the example of Franklin Roosevelt, whose character was forged through his battle with polio.

Athletic endurance events are about suffering. Those who seek out long distance runs, Ironman triathlons, marathon swims, endurance bike rides, what have you, are those who thrive under moments of suffering. They embrace those moments, they conquer them and then unfortunately spend too long telling you about them during dinner (as I’m doing now). During Sunday’s race, the moments when I felt best, were not the moments that hurt the most. I did not enjoy the cramps in my quads that I experienced when I finished swimming. The best moments were those when I suffered and prevailed over my suffering. Suffering is not exactly the same as pain. It’s perhaps a duller sensation, felt not in one particular region of one’s body, but in one’s heart, lungs and soul. When I was exhausted running the marathon, when all I wanted to do was join all of those walkers, I was somehow able to reach deep into my kishkes and go to places I’d never been. I was able to do things that I was not sure I would be able to do. Those four hours of running are what I will remember best about the race and they are the accomplishment I am most proud of. My overall time was a motivating factor, but it was only the hurdle I wanted to overcome. The goal was the process of overcoming the hurdle, it wasn’t just getting to the other side.

My good friend and (very fast running partner) Avigdor Book recently posted here about his recent ultramarathon in South Africa. Vig is a great runner with amazing running accomplishments. But anyone who read his post could sense that the accomplishment he considered his greatest was not one of those times when he ran super fast. It was the last 7k of that run, when his quads were in agony from endless downhill running, but he refused to DNF and he staggered the last seven k to the finish line. Few remember who beat Julie Moss in the Hawaii Ironman triathlon in 1982. But the most memorable triathlon moment in history (everyone mentions this moment to me) is Julie crawling across the finish line (google her name in YouTube for the video).

This is the type of suffering that I believe David Brooks is talking about. It is was I call “pain without loss.” It is why people are signing up for Tough Mudders and Warrior Dashes and marathons and triathlons and all such craziness. Life has become too easy for us on a daily basis. All of our basic needs are easily within the reach of our hands. Indeed life is so easy that we indulge in it too much–we eat too much, we consume too much media, we use up too many resources because they are so easily acquired. Endurance sports are a relatively safe way to form oneself, to use Brooks’s words, by suffering. It is the opportunity to suffer without fear of loss.

But pain and suffering with loss is not treasured. It is not the pain that people look back at as the most meaningful, clarifying moment of their lives. I have never heard anyone say that the best moment of their life was overcoming the loss of a child, a spouse, a sibling or parent. The families that have lost their children, the kids who have lost their friends, the country that has lost three members of its youth, have experienced pain that belongs in an entirely different realm. One can recover from physical pain and one can recover from mental pain. One can even recover from the loss of one’s own physical abilities. There was a man with one arm doing the Ironman. There were two blind people doing it.. Roosevelt’s character was forged through his battle with polio. But one can never recover from the loss of another person. There is no overcoming the absence of people in our lives who are no longer there. Even after the healing, the loss will always remain.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Joshua Kulp is the Senior Scholar at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He has rabbinic ordination from Hadar and a PhD from Bar-Ilan University. He is the author of three books, The Shechter Haggadah, and Reconstructing the Talmud, v. 1 and 2. He lives in Modiin with his wife and four children. When not writing, teaching or studying, he can be found out running, biking or swimming or drinking delicious Hazy IPA's.