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Amelia Boone, a famous spartan and ultra endurance athlete has this quote that many athletes have adopted: “I’m not the strongest I’m not the fastest but I’m good at suffering.” She later redacted this statement, stating that “enduring” is a more fitting word than “suffering.” Before she made this statement, I never thought about the difference.
Suffering is enduring something bad, “the state of undergoing pain, distress, or hardship.” Enduring, however, is to “suffer something painful or difficult patiently.” To endure is to suffer, but with patience. To endure is to know that you will, at some point, exit the suffering. To endure is to become strong. To suffer is simply to remain in a painful state, sometimes for a long time. Some of us suffer for months, or years. Some of us may not know we can stop suffering and start enduring. All it takes is a 90-degree pivot and the wherewithal to recognize the difference.
I didn’t realize it until I was hip-deep in hurt, but I was good at suffering, too. Running hard brought me immediate physical pain. The more I leaned into that pain the less I could bear to think about anything else. In this way, running was a crutch. A blessing but a curse. My savior and my fall from grace. Running taught me to endure the difficult parts of life. Life has taught me that there will always, always be difficulty.
My paternal grandparents bought the farm I grew up on, raising cattle, tilling the land, slowly building a home from the fertile but callous earth. My parents bought that house before I was born and still live there to this day, the kitchen countertops still a muted pea green, the basement carpet bright orange. Visiting home feels like taking a step back a few decades in time, and that’s one of the reasons I love going home. The house is modest by conventional standards, but the land is what I fell in love with. The cornfield butted up to a strip of forest, where a creek ran hard in the springtime, coming to a head in a swamp. It doesn’t sound glamorous to say I grew up next to a swamp and loved it, but I did.
We lived far from most of my friends, so I would come home after school, say hello to my great-grandmother, then fetch our dog and run all the way to the fence line and back, sometimes more than once. I was lonely and running gave me a friend. I covered up emotional hurt with physical pain, and that is a dynamic some of the best athletes are caught in. We know pain so intimately that sometimes, we can’t let it go.
I asked my therapist one day if pain is a good motivator, “it seems to work, for me,” I said, “I push myself hard when I hurt the most and that sometimes leads to great athletic accomplishments.”
He thought for a moment and answered, “I’m not an athlete like you so I can’t know for sure. But it seems like an exhausting motivator, like having a chip on your shoulder. At some point, internal motivation needs to be stronger than the external stuff because the external stuff will stop working.”
“How do you know it will stop working?” I asked, pushing him for details. I needed to know that giving up my emotional pain wouldn’t hurt my ability to run hard or fast. I needed to know that I would still be able to push myself if I wasn’t hurting.
He looked at me over his round glasses, “You’re here, aren’t you?” he said. “I think that’s answer enough. You seem like you want to resolve your pain but you’re afraid that without it, you won’t be you anymore. Is that right?”
Usually, when he asked me hard questions, I’d look away or avert my eyes. That day, I looked him square in the face and whispered, “That’s right.”
Then he said something that has stuck with me ever since, something I wrote on a sticky note and stuck to my desk so I’d see it every day, read it every day and eventually believe it to be true, “You can be a badass without constantly suffering,” he said, “hurting all the time doesn’t necessarily make you stronger.” And for the first time, I believed him.
Learning to endure pain is different than suffering, because those who endure become stronger. Those who suffer can't become stronger because suffering is implicitly centered around pain. Enduring is to overcome whatever pain you're experiencing. Hurting all the time doesn't necessarily make you stronger.