Hurts So Good: An Old Man’s Guide to Playing with Pain
Yeah, my friends are gone and my hair is grey
I ache in the places where I used to play
Leonard Cohen, “Tower of Song”
There isn’t a morning I wake up and don’t hurt. It might be a knee — next day, a shoulder. Maybe my forehead or a shin. Oh no, a hip. I rock like a hobby horse, propelling my feet off the bed onto the floor, then try to remember how I got hurt, not to avoid doing it again but to understand how to deal with it better the next time. See, I caused it not by working but by playing — and enjoying every exquisite, excruciating moment.
I’m 69 and still play soccer, hockey, basketball, downhill and cross-country ski, run, and generally anything I’ve enjoyed my whole life. Nearly everyone I play with is 20 years younger, more skilled, faster, and stronger. So I must run, jump, kick, stretch, swing, shoot, turn, pivot, fall, and do everything the best I can every time just to look like I belong there.
The reasons I do these things is a mystery not worth pursuing. I still see myself as a Boomer baby on the ADHD spectrum since the 1950s: the inspiration for but not a beneficiary of Ritalin. Every year, I make smaller and smaller steps for a man while losing one more giant leap to the rest of mankind. It takes longer to rejuvenate between competitions, and more significantly, for pains to subside and injuries to heal. I’m lucky I’ve only suffered one serious sports injury so far: three broken ribs and a collapsed lung in a 1980 soccer collision. It still hurts, especially in cold weather.
So, if cold weather causes me pain, why would I choose to live in Duluth, Minnesota, one of the coldest places on the planet? If playing challenging and dangerous sports makes it hard for me to get out of bed every morning, why do it? Answer: I’ve started a new relationship — with pain. Like other relationships, it’s built on mutual understanding and respect: a realization that we cannot enjoy living — arguably, cannot live — without each other.
For many or even most people, the key to a happy life or living at all, is the mitigation or absence of suffering and pain. It’s why hospitals and doctors, the medical and pharmaceutical industries, are revered, wealthy, and powerful. They understand this basic human need and…