It is a basic human instinct to avoid suffering. In fact, innovations that have created our modern day infrastructure have unequivocally been motivated by this basic human instinct. Each passing generation, when compared to previous ones, are better insulated against suffering of all types. These changes to our collective lifestyle make life more convenient and comfortable, and we are forever searching for the next invention that will make life easier and more hospitable. Transportation, housing, medicine; the list goes on. Despite the continual progression of modern society, suffering remains an unavoidable aspect of the human condition. While it is painful and unpleasant, suffering drives positive change.
The Certainty of Suffering
Despite our best efforts to avoid suffering, it is something that every human on the planet can identify with. Suffering can come in all different shapes and sizes – a failed relationship, a death of a loved one, or even a lost job. When we are faced with these types of experiences, someone will undoubtedly offer up the phrase “What doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger.” While you may have to resist the urge to reach out and smack that person, they are, in fact, correct. The one redeeming thing about physical and emotional pain is that when we eventually ascend from our funk, we are forever changed for the better.
If you are thinking – Ok Mr. Dalai Lama, you may be right, but what could this possibly have to do with exercise and health? I’m getting there…stay with me.
Against our Better Judgement
Everyone has experienced that moment during a run or a workout of some type in which their body says loud and clear “Why are you doing this to me? This is painful, please make it stop!” This is our body’s intrinsic desire to avoid suffering. Basically, when we exercise, we place ourselves in a continued state of discomfort and we must resist our innate desire to return to a more comfortable state. So why then, do we resist this urge and prolong the misery associated with exhaustive exercise? The answer is that we recognize that the suffering is only temporary and it will result in positive adaptations.
Breakdown precedes Buildup
Exercise is one of the only arenas in life in which we purposefully and continually embrace suffering. In actuality, the stress of exercise causes physiological damage to our bodies. Through subsequent repair of affected musculoskeletal and cardiorespiratory tissues, our bodies change for the better. So, we actually get weaker before we get stronger. Sound familiar? While physical adaptations are typically our main motivation, exercise also ultimately leads to the strengthening of our emotional/psychological resilience and hardiness in the face of all types of suffering.
Tit for Tat
Those who habitually push themselves to exercise make a subconscious exchange with themselves that goes as such – I’ll endure suffering in exchange for positive physical adaptations. Now, if we are able to approach all suffering with this type of mentality, then we can re-frame the way we look at suffering as nothing more than temporary discomfort that will ultimately result in positive personal change.
If only it were so easy, right? In fairness, I’m not trying to propose that overcoming a break-up is as easy as a 30-minute jog on the treadmill, but, in this case, perspective is everything. How we approach periods of suffering is important. Is there a time to be sad and miserable? Absolutely! But, life is short, and misery is no fun. You can either wallow in self-pity, or embrace your suffering and view it as an opportunity for personal growth. So just remember, stay strong, suffer through, you will be better for it in the end.