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 address it — some might say exploit it. Either way, let’s agree it is instinctively human to want to avoid injury and pain, heal our wounds, and comfort the suffering.
Unless you’re German.
Schopenhauer, Hegel, and other dour, 19th century Deutsche denizens of drear begat the humorless, classically German philosophical theory that to live is to suffer. Comparatively comical krauts Nietzsche, Jaspers, and contemporaries later theorized that humans could overcome all adversity, including suffering, if they simply had the will. But what does “the will” consist of? Answer: among other ingredients, knowledge and passion. Know what you want, why you want it, do anything, including risk pain and suffering, to get it.
As Husserl said to Kierkegaard, “One doesn’t have to be German to possess the will to overcome pain. But it doesn’t hurt. Get it, Søren? Ha!”
Sorry, I made that up. OK, so I knew what I wanted and why. But how could I forge “the will” from both my quest for the joy of playing and the pain resulting from my choice? Understanding that pain was not my enemy nor the opposite of joy. It was my coach, my biggest fan, maybe even a friend. It constantly reminded me that I was alive (to live is to suffer), and that it would be there for me as long as I kept playing (to not suffer is to be dead).
I soon found that no matter how much I hurt, I had to will myself out of bed to play that match, skate ski the blue 10 km, or run that 7 miles along Lake Superior. At first, I’d try to do it all again the next day. But soon, I determined that an additional day of rest to get my energy back was more important than pain management. That worked. Meanwhile, my appetite for high-protein foods — meat, fish, dairy, nuts — grew while my weight dropped to from 185 to 163 pounds: my lowest since college.
Pain killing drugs, you ask? Never been a fan and have been fortunate to not need them or any prescription narcotics except in a few temporary cases. OK, I occasionally break down and pop an Alleve to help me sleep after that day’s athletic adventure. But pain now feels as much a part of me as the skills required to play my sports, and essential to maintaining my self-awareness (a must according to Kant and yet more German philosophers), the foundation of my character, my will. My situation is akin to the proverbial sound of a tree falling in the forest. I need to hear it crash as proof of my achievement.
If I don’t drink well, I have to suffer.
So I just say Nein to drugs. But Ja to beer. Yet more legendary German thinkers including Luther, Schiller, and Goethe were avid bierhunds. Beer and sports have always been as tight as hops and barley, Arendt and Heidegger. I’ll admit to my fondness for the beverage. My fellow soccer players routinely bring a cooler of beer to enjoy after every game. It’s sublime being outdoors after a match, laughing with friends, sipping a cold pilsner. It’s totally gemütlichkeit to visit a pub with the crew afterwards and guzzle a perfectly chilled brown ale. Or two.
But Martin Luther was obviously never a fußballspieler. It was not good to drink only beer after sweating and exerting for a few hours, depleting all my precious bodily fluids. The next day’s aches were compounded by a nasty hangover. I learned fast that drinking beer after such a workout at my age requires ingesting at least an equal amount of water simultaneously. It’s also better if the beer has less carbonation. Budweiser, Stella Artois, and Coors Light have some of the highest levels of CO2. Bud has around 2.71 pints of CO2 per 1 pint of beer. You’re swallowing more gas than liquid.
But the priority to enjoy age-inappropriate sports, I ultimately determined, is avoiding injuries. Those usually happen when you’re in an unfamiliar, intensely competitive environment, you’re tired, or not paying full attention. Maintaining a high energy level and pain threshold, and focusing on the activity have helped me avoid serious injury so far. Just as important, assessing and choosing who I play with and against, field conditions, weather, time of day, and more arcane factors (will they bring beer?) help me determine how tough the game might be and whether I should play at all.
My entire effort hinges on changing not only my philosophy toward pain but sports in general. I substituted my desire to win with a passion for personal performance. Emphasize precision, deemphasize power. In soccer, I found that I enjoy making a decent pass or defensive play as much as scoring a goal. In hockey, I get a better workout (more steps on the FitBit anyway) by concentrating on skating and balance rather than stick-handling. In cross-country skiing, I sacrifice speed for technique and distance and never keep time. In fact, I never keep score at all anymore.
Most satisfying is that my body pain now seems insignificant compared to the joy I’ve found rediscovering people. By escaping the confinement of my comforts, I meet new people who share my interests regardless of age. By playing with courtesy and respect, I’ve made new friends — difficult in our isolated, impermanent, device-fixated society. And by believing that to live is to suffer, a sore ankle or bruised elbow seem a small price to ease a pain that eventually affects all of us, young and old: the pain of loneliness.