Why Is Pain a Badge of Pride?

So I’m sitting here at work trying to muscle through the last 4 hours while sick and somewhat miserable, my head hurting and my brain hurting, and I’m wondering why I don’t just go home and go to bed. Well partly it’s because I can’t afford to since I don’t have any PTO right now, but partly it’s more than that: it’s the idea that the more we suffer for something, the more it’s worth.

A while ago I was reading an article on cracked.com (my usual haven of hilarity) when I ran across this choice quote about getting to the end of a Tough Mudder:

“And that’s exactly why I felt like an idiot by the end. I went in with the confused notion that any experience that is awful was also good for me. Suffering is always supposed to have rewards in the end, and even if those rewards are sometimes vague, I can at least chalk it up to a rounding of character. But Tough Mudder offers a window dressing version of personal betterment without much behind it. I don’t mean to insult anyone who loves the challenge of Tough Mudder because I will certainly admit that it kicked my ass. But it was painful like torture is painful. The simplest way I can describe it is that when I ran through the swamp portion of our course in the gloom and cold, I secretly wanted the experience to be like Luke training on Dagobah. But the most important challenge, the part where I fight myself in a cave and overcome my own weaknesses, wasn’t there. In its place were some greased monkey bars instead. I guess if I had one suggestion for the people who run Tough Mudder, it would be to include a Cave of Evil. That would be really nice.”

I think this sums up some of why I’m pushing myself to make it through work today. Part of me imagines a glorified image of me passing out in the hallway while I run to copy some highly important document so a little kid with developmental delays can get their testing done on time (ok not really but my Dayquil addled brain found that image funny). Unfortunately my job really isn’t that important, and I’m more in love with the idea of suffering than I am with the idea of sacrifice for a good cause. In many ways, we have falsely associated pain with success: we have phrases like “pain is weakness leaving the body” or “no pain no gain”. We assume that the things causing us pain are always there for a reason. If we’re working insanely hard at our job, it’s because we’re getting tons done and we’re going to get a huge promotion with lots of money. If we’re working really hard at our marriage, it’s because we’re so in love and everything will work out and become flowers and rainbows someday soon. If we’re working really hard at school then we’ll be a straight A student who will be rewarded with scholarships and acceptances to amazing colleges or grad schools.

Unfortunately all of that is bullshit. And it’s really privileged. In general, these things are only true if you’re coming from a very privileged position. People who are oppressed go through pain every damn day for no apparent reason. If pain really were a badge of overcoming and making something better, then we’d have a lot of really successful and awarded black single mothers, but unfortunately the reality is that pain often comes for no reason whatsoever and we have to just keep dealing with it. But even in privileged lives we seem to take it for granted that pain is a good thing, signalling progress.

I was watching a documentary last night on ballet dancers, and they talked about working through injuries, about continuing to dance no matter how much pain they were in, about not letting their feelings show when they were disappointed and simply working through any pain they had. In some perverse way, they wore it like a badge of honor: I will keep doing what I love no matter how much pain I’m in. I will even put myself in more pain to continue doing this. It will make my dancing worth more because I kept going through the pain.

I think that we often tell ourselves things like this to convince ourselves our pain is not useless. It’s similar to Miri’s post about depression, and how everyone wants to think that we can gain insight from every type of pain. We want to comfort ourselves into thinking there’s a reason for when things go poorly or that we can at least get something from every type of pain. And while I can understand this completely human dishonesty, and while I agree that many times pain does come with insight, I think that dishonesty almost always leads to bad consequences and this is no different. When we associate pain with improvement (either of self or situation), we unconsciously tell people that they should be in pain. I’ve felt this pressure often: I’ve felt as if I SHOULD be stressed out or I’m not getting enough done, I should be tired or I’m not working hard enough. And when people start to feel that they should improve their lives in some way, they might turn to pain instead of a positive method of life-improvement. This may be why self-harm is so damn popular: it feels like it means something because pain is always supposed to mean.

But it’s so important to remember that pain is not inherently important. When we earn something through pain we can be proud of ourselves, but the pain does not make the end result better or more worthwhile. The sour doesn’t sweeten the rest of life. We don’t need to glorify pain.

2 thoughts on “Why Is Pain a Badge of Pride?

  1. edgyhedgy says:

    As a masochist, I just flat out like pain. However in the case of being sick at work, I don’t feel any sense of accomplishment or anything from the suffering but instead a sense of duty. My parents worked two jobs and went into work dead instead of calling in sick to support us.

    Here I have learned that it is not always worth pushing through the pain. Nothing here makes me feel worse than letting my group down, but when your stomach is in knots or you can’t walk, you stay behind. I’ve learned to be more conservative that way I suppose. Less risk because the consequences are far higher than the potential reward.

  2. nadith says:

    yeah, the association of pain with value and that ignorance is valiant are both a rather metaphysical assumption which I think is rather destructive. Sure, there is a reason for pain, what you are doing is painful, and the pain is telling you that something you are doing causes distortion or damage or simply is not desired. Doesn’t seem to tricky to me. If you can’t see the value in understanding the situation, or in doing your best, then perhaps that is something you can arbitrate value to.

    I don’t know if it is really a privilege thing, as I’ve seen people from all walks with this perspective, that overcoming their pain and having had it is somehow a matter of goodness and pride. To each their own, but I rather enjoy learning.

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