What Kind of Pain Are You Willing To Endure?
[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
I really hate writing sometimes. Not because I write bad things (I do), or because I write unimportant things (I do that, too), but because writing is really fucking hard sometimes.
I've been writing a long time, which means absolutely nothing other than I've had years of consistent practice. There is only one way to get better at something, and that is to do it consistently. I write *almost* every day. I also run *almost* every day. I exercise my writing like I exercise my legs and neither endeavor feels good all of the time. Most of the time it's boring or monotonous or a struggle. But if every other aspect of my life were stripped away, I would still run, and I would still write. I can't imagine a reality in which words and movement are not the cornerstone of my life. The pain of running long and hard, or the pain of grappling with words, is worth it to me. There is no forward progress without struggle, so I decided a long time ago to struggle at something I love.
A while ago, a guy asked me what I wanted out of life: a family, children, a big house, a husband. What did I see for myself? he wanted to know. The only way I knew to answer was to say that I see myself running and writing and living every day as fully as I know how. I don't know if a family lies in my future. I don't know if I'll ever own a house or if I'll ever get married or if anything I ever write will mean anything to anybody. But I do know that the sun will rise every morning, that the ocean will keep kissing the shore, and that people will go to great lengths to avoid pain.
"What do you want out of life?" is such a generic question that it's difficult to answer in a way that makes sense. According to Mark Manson (and I agree, by the way), a more useful question is "What are you willing to struggle for? What pain are you willing to endure?"
You might be willing to endure the pain of bad knees or a bad back or an unhealthy heart because it affords you the ability to avoid taking care of yourself. Eating healthfully, exercising, and getting enough sleep are hard, and might be painful, but it's just as painful to be sick and unhealthy. You get to decide what kind of pain you want to endure.
You might be willing to endure the pain of a distant or dysfunctional relationship because it affords you the ability to avoid addressing deeper issues. Everyone wants a healthy, happy relationship, but not everyone is willing to endure the awkwardness, arguments, inevitable hurt feelings, and sacrifice required to build one. You get to decide what kind of pain you want to endure.
You might be willing to sit comfortably in a job that doesn't challenge you but that provides a steady paycheck because it affords you the ability to avoid failing. Everyone wants a lucrative career and financial independence until they understand the risk involved in putting yourself out there. You might not succeed. You might have to work hard, for a long time, before you see any benefit. Again, you get to decide what kind of pain you want to endure.
The guy who asked me what I wanted out of life had a different sort of vision. He wanted a lot of kids, a big house, private schools. He wanted a person who would fold seamlessly into his own life, and that person was definitely not me. But his question led me to a better question, which is: "What pain am I willing to endure? How do I want to suffer?"
Happiness requires struggle. It's easy to feel good or positive when everything is going your way, but negative experiences are what shape us. As Manson writes, "what we get out of life is not determined by the good feelings we desire, but by what bad feelings we’re willing and able to sustain to get us to those good feelings."
It isn't enough to ask what you want out of life because wants come and go. Everyone wants something, and a lot of us want things badly-success, health, happiness, whatever. But wanting something means absolutely nothing if you're not willing to suffer a little bit to get it. People don't run ultra marathons simply because they want to, they run ultra marathons because they want to and they're willing to train and suffer and endure. I don't write every day simply because I want to. I want to write every day and I'm willing to endure the mental difficulty and frustration and loneliness and disquietude that comes with it.
What you want out of life is important, sure. But what you're willing to endure to achieve what you want is what really matters. What kind of pain will you choose to endure? How will you choose to suffer?
P.S. Read more from Manson here, read about Buddhism's Four Noble Truths, or read this Times article about how to be an expert at anything.