Assuming that you have been savvy enough to subscribe, The 10,000 Days Newsletter, No. 12, will plink into your inbox tomorrow morning.
Issue No. 11 featured this essay that related pain threshold to IQ in a way not flattering to the author.
Playing with pain
In 1967, I was a 14-year-old middle-school football player. One day, a future all-county linebacker broke my arm. That hurt, but I finished the last 40 minutes of practice. By the time I got to the locker room, I needed the help of teammates to take off my uniform and pads.
In college during an intramural softball game, at first base I caught a sharply hit ball not with my glove but with my face, breaking my nose. I finished the game, of course, once the bleeding stopped.
Years ago as a runner, I tore a calf muscle training for a race, then went to an acupuncturist so I could compete anyway, and four days later ran 10 kilometers in pain but also in a respectable time. On a three-day cross-country ride for charity, I bicycled 60 miles across Connecticut and New York with a knee that hurt so bad I grunted on every push of the pedals. For the next month, every step hurt.
Some years ago in another softball game—I'm a slow learner—I had an end-of-finger encounter with a line drive. Not only did I finish that game, I played for a full month before X-rays proved I’d broken both knuckles. This prompted me to observe to my wife that my pain threshold sometimes exceeds my IQ. She did not rush to disagree.
How to explain this absurd pride in playing through the pain of an injury, and my admiration for people who do the same? How to explain pursuit of activities that I know are going to hurt, like running a marathon, which I have done four times? Isn't pain supposed to warn us to stop doing whatever we’re doing that hurts?
This afternoon I found a blog post from around 2005 in which I was musing about this same thing, and noted the results of a web search on the phrase “playing with pain.” (To give you an idea of how long ago this was in internet years, the search engine was A9. Anyone remember that one? Show of hands?) The results were odd, in that 2005 search engine sort of way. First up was “Playing the Cello With Pain.” The second hit was, again, a reference to the cello, which must be way more dangerous than I had imagined. Third listing on the page rank concerned playing with pain in the Super Bowl, which seemed more like it, except it pointed me to the First Unitarian Church of Rochester. (No, I don’t know either.) Next up was something called The Lighthouse Ministries. (?) Further down the list was an entry about plantar fascitis (yep, I’ve run with that; it hurts), acute soft-tissue trauma (see preceding parenthetical remark), playing the flute while in pain, and finally a book titled Leathersex, which I did not explore further.
My less-than-profound conclusion is that there is peculiar but deep satisfaction in proving to yourself that you can endure, even in something as goofily meaningless as a softball game. Maybe we seek reassurance that we can persevere through whatever might lie ahead in our lives. Maybe it’s something atavistic. Maybe it’s the way pain forces one to be all the more present, alert, and fully engaged. Maybe it's just dumb.
In his first book, chef Anthony Bourdain described how after years of work in the kitchen, he looked at himself and realized he had the hands he’d always wanted: scarred, misshapen, battered—true chef’s hands. I know exactly what he means.