“Pain is Temporary. Quitting Lasts Forever”

This is a reprint of a CataLyst letter I sent out. I’m reprinting it here because it got such a good response and so you can see what you’re signing up for. 🙂 —->

One of my friends and I have an ongoing argument: Does putting yourself through a grueling challenge make you tougher?

I talked about this a couple weeks ago in the post “On Doing Things (to) Yourself,” but this is a bit more nuanced version.

His whole premise is that, if you have to put yourself through pain and suffering in order to prove yourself, your self-esteem is not high enough that you would ever be satisfied that you are tough “enough.” You will want to be the best, and the fact of the matter is that there will always be somebody who has gone through more than you. And if you’re bull-headed enough, you’ll test yourself to destruction trying to attain the unattainable.

I disagree. Like in most things, motivation is everything. Are there a number of people out there who do things for the reasons he describes? Yeah. For sure. But not everybody is like that.

My Story

I have always dived headfirst into adversity because I desperately wanted to know what I was made of. I left academia because I became convinced it would make me soft. I was already so good at politics and bullshitting, I knew I had more of the same to look forward to. But was that all I was capable of? I was scared that it was.

So I went to get my truckers’ license. Not many people know that I failed the test 6 times. It was the most humiliating thing I had ever done. Me, who had never failed anything, ever. At $300 per test, it might have been more rational to quit. But at least it wasn’t that most humiliating failure of all: admitting defeat.

After I finally passed, I set my sights higher. I was going to the oilpatch. Conventional wisdom was that women couldn’t get a job there. The work was too tough. They couldn’t hack it. So of course I was determined to do it.

I got a job (an office number cruncher pointed out that I would work more cheaply than a man. And he was right). It took me another month to get into the field, and only because a man got hurt on a rig and they were desperate. I took over.

The rig really needed two guys. It was moving too fast. But I couldn’t have another guy because it was a liability issue. I knew at that point they were trying to break me. You don’t put a greenhorn on a rig that fast. I worked 21 hour days all that summer.

I quit to go back to school, and I immediately fell ill. Adrenal fatigue. I had run on fumes for so long, there was nothing left in the tank.

Living on that rig, going without sleep, disciplining myself to drink a bottle of water and a granola bar every hour on the hour even though the sleep-deprivation made the thought of food repulsive. Never ever shirking, never whining, winning the respect of the riggers by sheer force of will– that changed me.

Learning from Pain — Or Not

Even though my body ultimately gave up on me, it didn’t fail me when I needed it. It waited til I had the space and time to give out. I finally know I can trust my body when it counts.

Of course, now my body is not nearly so forgiving of ego-stoking stunts like that. Having proven itself once, it’s not going to go through it againunless it’s truly necessary.

I learned a lot from that suffering. But I don’t need suffering to learn. And that’s the essential distinction between what I believe about grueling challenges and what my friend believes. I can learn about myself from that kind of pain. But I don’t have to. I can also learn from love, from vulnerability, from cooperation and from leadership.

Where could you make your learning process a little less painful?


5 thoughts on ““Pain is Temporary. Quitting Lasts Forever””

  1. I’m blurry on the differences between your perspectives, but I’ll just blur further with my own.Yes, you can learn from pain. From not touching a hot stove to more wisely choosing a mate, we can learn from pain. I just can’t imagine for a moment <em>choosing</em> the pain. It was my Dad’s MO. If there was an easy way and a hard way, he made us do things the hard way because it “built character.” He died before I was old enough to say “Nonsense. Pain doesn’t build character, it builds suffering.”

    I could dig a ditch with a pick and shovel, or I could use a big tractor. I’ve done both. No one will ever again pay me enough to swing a pick and shovel. Now, if I wanted to lose weight, get in shape, and had a project, yep; I’d do it for those reasons. But if my goal is a trench, I’ll drive a backhoe. If my goal is to know that I can survive something, well, there’ll always be something one notch harder than what I put myself through. What if the only way to run that rig you were on was to work 24 hours a day until you died of exhaustion? Where does the lesson become fruitless? And what do you know about yourself as a person (not as a physical entity) that you didn’t already know? Did you truly wonder if you’d stick it out? I’ve only known you a few months, and I already know what you’d do.I don’t see the benefit to choosing pain.Your turn.

    1. With all due respect, you met me five years after I tackled truck-driving, oilpatch, roofing, contracting and sales. I’ve been seasoned. 

      No, I didn’t know. I knew I talked a good game. But I didn’t know, push come to shove, whether I actually could or would stick it out. I’d always been the smartest kid in my class, but I’d never had to do sports, because my mom though they were a waste of time. I bitched so long about doing chores outside I finally took over doing bookkeeping and cooking. 

      So I’d never in my life come up to a situation where I actually had to step up that way, physically. Sure, my pride was on the line, but would it be enough when I was exhausted,  lonely, and everyone was against me? I had always believed it would, but I could never be sure until I tested the theory. 
      For me, I had to experience that endurance in order to give a weight to it. You yourself have dug ditches — but until you’ve had the blisters on your hands, the fierce ache in your back, the sweat rolling in your eyes as you sink out of sight, it’s hard to really articulate the difference in the two. Too often, I’ve seen that “I don’t know if I can handle it” question become a FIERCE line of resistance because people sense a real pitfall in taking the easy way, but the hard way seems too unthinkable. 
      And so they get kind of stuck in this hinterland of shoulds and ought-tos. Sometimes, you need to bite the bullet and do things the hard way. Most of the time you don’t, but the character part comes in from being familiar with the pain, and saying “Yeah, that’s not really necessary.”
      People who’ve never come across the pain feel a real lack of integrity concerning it; they feel like untempered, potentially flawed vessels. Other people, like your dad, perhaps, get caught up in diving back into the crucible again and again, which inevitably warps them. It’s a fine line, and I think you were lucky to learn it young (your dad was right, it does build character, it’s just that too much of it will eventually be the straw that breaks the camel’s back)
      Incidentally, that a charge often leveled at my generation, that we’ve had it so easy, we don’t know what we’re made of; that’s what’s responsible for our malaise. But the same charge seems to get leveled at every generation, so who’s to say?
  2. The Vile Scribbler

    It’s certainly good to have confidence, to know that you’re capable of persevering when necessary. Nothing worth having ever comes easy, etc. But speaking for myself, I’ve been critical of those who make a moralizing fetish out of the “no pain, no gain” mentality because it makes all the difference in the world when you know, deep down, that you can stop whenever you finally decide to. The fact of knowing that a sure release is available to you invariably colors your perception of how much you can stand. I make that my distinction between pain and true suffering — the latter is when you really have no hope that your pain is going to end. Tantalus’s experience is very different from Sisyphus’s.

    1. That’s a good point — but aside from torture and chronic illness, who knows what that’s like? Anyone who has not *really* suffered, as you define it, defines it for themselves as the worst agony they know. And although it’s chosen, it’s not usually chosen consciously. But when it is — That’s where the power of it resides.

  3. Pingback: Ponderings on Pain :: Self-Discovery, Round-Up | Nourishing the Soul - A forum on body image and the effects of eating disorders

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