Good Pain, Bad Pain

Inspired by today’s reading in Shauna Niequist’s bookSavorentitled “Two Kinds of Pain”

Dedicated to all my friends who wonder if they should stay or if they should go.

So, confession: I don’t know if I can workout at home. I want to believe I can. I know what a huge phenomenon P90X and all of its children are (Turbo, PiYo, You Name It-O). I have some Jillian Michaels DVDs (you know, The Biggest Loser trainer). I’ve tried them a few times, but I always end up quitting. I do make it a good way through, but then I end up exhausted, out of breath, and decide “Whelp, I’m good and sweaty! I think we can safely say my heart rate is the heck up! Let’s fast forward to the cool down.” And I do. Sure, I got in a good workout still. Is it awful that I quit, shameful to the core? No. I still did a little something for my body. Did I HAVE to quit? Nope. I haven’t quit, not ever, not once, in a live class.

Many friends had recommended exercise guru Julie Voris’ classes at our local YMCA. They couldn’t truly articulate WHY Julie was so awesome, why her classes were often so packed, despite being held in an enormous gym, that people were turned away at the door. However, 30 seconds after my first Julie class began, I knew exactly why my friends raved and people flocked: Julie is doing what she was born to do. Friends and Countrymen, know this about me: I LOVE PEOPLE DOING WHAT THEY WERE BORN TO DO. I absolutely love them. I collect them. No, I don’t have shelves filled with slightly dusty authors, poets, artists, exercise instructors and photographers, but I collect them in some inner, lovely, shabby chic filing cabinet. It’s dusty with golden pixie sparkles and tinkling music plays when you open it. Let’s thumb through…ah, yes, here’s my friend Jen Sherrick, the photographer. Her work screams that yes, of course, Jen was born to take pictures. That light. Those emotions. That setting, phrasing. But now watch her in action? Well. There isn’t a doubt in the world. She’s in her element. Sparkles and tinkling music indeed.

My friend Sara Sterley. Her kitchen is a whirring, baking, fermenting, crock pot warming beautiful organism of what she loves: creating sustaining, sustainable food from local, happy sources. She writes, teaches, gives, shares, plants, harvests and sells her passion. One time she was going to make me lunch during a play date and I left early because my children were raising the roof and not in the happy, celebratory way, but in the vehement, evil child way. I now know that decision was wrong. I should have plopped myself down and let the roof blow off while I consumed whatever came from that magical kitchen. Warm smells and sweet spices indeed.

Back to Julie. I’ve never once quit her class. I have wanted to every single time. Don’t get me wrong, Julie is inspiring, engaging, encouraging. She is all shimmering sweat and soaring potential indeed. My first PiYo class with her (and I really do love PiYo because it reminds me of my ballet past) opened to One Direction’s “The Story of My Life” and I thought my heart would burst (in the happy, inspired way, not in the literal, cardiac way). But I still wanted to quit later in the workout. I didn’t. Why? Was the workout easier than the ones I quit at home, alone in my living room? No, but of course the living, breathing, sweating mass of bodies around me carried me through. Julie’s voice in her headset, telling me the goal is progress, not perfection, pulled me strong against the shaking, aching, dripping I can’ts.

The pain in both workouts is intense. It’s strong enough to illicit the primal “fight or flight’ response that at home leads to flight and in class leads to fight. It is good pain. It is still very, very real pain. But it’s meant to bring growth, health, beauty and strength.

Every exercise instructor on Earth; however, will tell you to be watchful of any “bad pain”. Any pinching, pulling, sharpness that indicates you’ve switched from healthy, muscle and body enriching activity to damaging, straining or breaking. And it’s so deeply personal, isn’t it? It’s something only we can know. Only we can notice the pinching and say “That’s not ok.” Only we know when a stretch goes from a shaking, teeth-gritting, yet ultimately rewarding challenge to a pain that is inherently damaging. It’s deep down and it requires total honesty with one’s self to know when you are quitting for good and quitting for cheap. The former protects and the latter robs. The first preserves and the second cheats.

And so it is in life. How do we know when to push through, even when everything screams inside to stop? Whether it’s a job or relationship or any other myriad of situations, how do you know when to persevere and when to say this must end, immediately, completely, to prevent any further damage to my own sweet soul? The intensity with which we want to quit cannot be trusted. I can quit on my living room floor when I would not have quit in the YMCA gym, with the exact same strain. (Note here: of course we can draw parallels to the importance of community, the YMCA example, of not going it alone, but that’s not really the point. I would stop if the pain were sharp enough even surrounded by a hundred sweaty people at the Y. Even when carried along powerfully by others, the right thing to do sometimes is still to quit.) So how do we know good pain from bad pain in our lives?

I think it’s deeply personal. It requires the same deep down, inner search that knowing when to stop during exercise requires. It’s just so much trickier because we tend not to value the tearing and straining of our sweet souls, our tender hearts, the same we do the shredding of our muscles or bones.  I think we have to learn to listen.

Words from Ecclesiastes Chapter 3:

“12 I know that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice and to do good in one’s lifetime; 13 moreover, that every man who eats and drinks sees good in all his labor—it is the gift of God.”


“22 I have seen that nothing is better than that man should be happy in his activities, for that is his lot. For who will bring him to see what will occur after him?”

Translation: You’ve got one spin, Son (said in the popular culture way, not the biblical way). Be who I’ve made you to be, exactly, and make it a good one.

–The Big G (Laura Carney translation)

Addendum: I just went to fold laundry and thought about the aspects of this essay that seemed a little bit disjointed to me: people doing what they were born to do, good and bad pain, and the verses from Ecclesiastes that seem to say doing what feels good, what makes us happy, is ultimately what makes God happy too. But after folding some underwear I thought: what if it’s a Big Fat Holy Hint (you know, a BFHH)? What if the things that make us come alive are the very things that are worth the pain, that the doing of is “good pain”? And what if the very things that crush our soul a little at a time, the jobs, the relationships, the things that we were not born to do and do not make us more fully alive, are examples of “bad pain”, warning pain, stop pain? Could it be? I’m willing to bet there are days Jen doesn’t want to shoot, Julie doesn’t want to teach and Sara doesn’t want to cook or harvest or write. Should they quit? We’d all be poorer if they did. Would the world be poorer if you stopped?

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