The Joy of Effort

During a warm-up run for the Vancouver Olympics, the Slovenian cross-country skier Petra Majdic went off the course and broke her ribs in the fall.  Fortunately or unfortunately for her, the first x-rays did not show that her ribs were broken.  It was “only” pain.  After her injury, she did three more runs in the qualifiers, plus the quarter-final, the semi-final, and then the final, ultimately winning a bronze medal.  All the time in exquisite pain.  She told the Sports Illustrated writer David Epstein, “The beauteous things in life are born from pain. For example, a child is born from great pain.”

Florence commented that the last post did not really address her question whether “pain itself (physical or mental), could be perceived as joy… as in, exquisite pain.. The example i gave was :  pain during delivery.  There is also the similarity of feeling a burn, from fire, or from ice.”  Petra Majdic seems to think so.

We have seen David Epstein’s article on stress-induced analgesia before when we were discussing how emotions such as anger can seem to provide an “immunity to pain.”   Epstein explains that there is a

pathway … in which the body’s natural opiates, such as endorphins, bind to opioid receptors in the brain and spinal cord and trigger the release of dopamine, which causes a euphoric feeling and mitigates pain.

The physical pain itself does not produce euphoria in the athlete or the new mother; rather, physical pain stimulates the body to release “natural opiates.” Mitigating the pain helps, but the joy of staying the course, of victory, of giving birth comes with being aware, seeing as we carry on through the pain.

When I lived in Kenya in the 1960s, I saw my students placidly reach into a cooking fire with bare hands to rearrange burning sticks and embers. In his novel Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy tells how a Delaware Indian sorts “with his hand among the absolute embers for a right coal with which to light his pipe.” I don’t know about Delaware Indians, but when handed an ice cube these same adult-circumcised Meru warriors yelped as if in pain, the same reaction I would have had if handed an ember.

My point is not that pain and joy are culturally relative, although they can be.  Rather, the joy we can feel in what might otherwise seem painful is another way we experience our experiences.  We imagine, we judge, we feel.  And then we imagine what we are feeling and judge that it hurts.  Or that it feels wonderful.  Thus, as Florence puts it, pain itself can be perceived as joy.


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