Monday, September 10, 2012

"I've already forgotten how horrible that was. . . "

This was a direct quote that I overheard the winner of the Hallucination 100 mile ultramarathon at Run Woodstock say only an hour or so after finishing his 18-hour long run, much of it through pouring rain in the middle of the night.

How do we so quickly forget some types of suffering?  Why do we voluntarily choose to repeat it?  I've joked at endurance events that our brains have a seeming desire to kill us.  Or at least torture us a bit.

 I've had points where I lacked motivation and wondered why I continue to sign up for races.  I've wondered during every race I've ever run why the hell I was doing this to myself.  And after every race, I've immediately started contemplating what I want to do next year.  Maybe I should go longer?  Sign up for more events?  Look for something to add on this season still?

This cognitive process doesn't strike me as a very adaptive feature for our survival.  Shouldn't we remember things that hurt and intentionally avoid them?

Then again, last night I sat looking at our three oldest dogs.  Come November, we will have two eleven-year old dogs and one thirteen year-old dog.  They are all healthy, though starting to show signs of age.  Jade is deaf, and wobbly on his rear legs.  Tristan continues his life-long struggle with bad structure, and gets sore more frequently after exercise.  And my seemingly-perpetually-young Django now seems to be losing his hearing.  It occurred to me that I'm going to lose each of them one day, and I wonder how I can possibly bear it.  And that reality that I will be going through this at least seven times, and probably many more, can terrify me when I think about it.

When our cat Milo died last year, the next morning I emailed a good friend and fellow animal lover to tell her the news.  I couldn't say much, but knowing she had lost beloved cats herself, I asked her "How long is it going to hurt this bad?"  She assured me that the pain would not always be so bad, that it was going to be hard now, but that the happy memories would soon take the place of that hurt, for the most part.  And those memories make everything else worth it.

So why do we push ourselves and seek out some types of challenges, even when they bring unpleasantness or pain?  Is it so we know we can handle worse suffering when it happens, whether physical or mental?  Is it to create our own pain so that we can forget about the other pain that we can't control?  Is it for how good it feels when you stop?

I really don't know.  It is a question that continues to fascinate me.  But maybe it isn't a dysfunction after all.  Maybe it is a gift. Maybe this same feature of our brains that inspires us to do some pretty crazy things as humans (such as running 100 miles all at one time), maybe it also serves a function to give us the capacity to move on after loss.  Because every time we love something, aren't we taking that same risk?  And isn't that risk always worth it?

No comments: