The Power of Pain image

The Power of Pain

September 19, 2022

Reading Time: 18 minutes.
I once shared a stage with Robert Twigger, author of 'Angry White Pyjamas'. His book tells the story of moving to Tokyo in order to master aikido at Japan's most famous and elite academy, a year-long education that was brutal, sadistic and painful, where mastery was pretty much beaten into him. One thing that stood out to me in his talk was how pain is a highly effective - if not most effective - learning method. He told the story of how his sensei would not take the time to provide emphatic and holistic or sympathetic instruction and feedback as Robert grabbled (literally) with the art of aikido but would instead strike him with a stick. It would be this pain, not some soothing advice, that would help to sharpen Roberts's focus and earn him his black belt.

Robert's story of learning by pain has been coming back to me as I've been watching my son begin to explore the world beyond newborn locked-in syndrome, a world that seemed to be all hard edges and face-planting drops. I remember when I took my older kids to the alps in the winter for the first time, and they experienced real snow for the first time. Ewen was only three, and so he just played in the snow until his hands went numb, and then came the pain. Almost immediately, when he fell over into the deep snow, he would elevate or orientate his bare hands so that he would not feel the same again. I see this now with Noah, who only seven months old, has very little fear or grasp of pain - or what it means - and would happily launch himself off a bed or changing table like some immortal. The word is 'had', as he now had a few tumbles, a few cracked heads, face planted as he dropped down a stair or two. The pain and shock of this feeling, part shock, part feeling you don't want to feel again, seems to be nature's way of teaching you something that cannot be learnt second-hand.

I suppose this learning via pain is at the heart of the debate about smacking your kids, or corporal punishment (I've had the cane and the slipper, and the odd 'whack' from my mum), that it's harder to get over to a small child the kinetic danger of a speeding car and a tiny body in words, rather than the speeding hand and the bare leg.

In climbing and mountaineering, pain is often very close by, the worst kind of pain, like the broken leg or arm or back, never far from your thoughts, but also other kinds, like the pain of frustration or exasperation at your weakness and incompetence. I wonder how often we drive ourselves on simply because the pain and anxiety of pushing it are sharper and short-term than the deeper and deeper wound of failing to try.

There is also an aspect to mastery in that it's partly building up how to avoid pain through experiencing pain: the terrible bivvy, the hot aches, the empty stomach, the dehydrated climb, each one partly making you a little tougher, but also focusing your mind - to avoid that pain again - to either get better or never do it again. Sure, I can try and explain what it's like to be utterly soaked to the skin in temperatures close to zero, exhausted, in the dark, with the wind ripping through your clothes, your hands almost immobile, your bivvy gear equally wet, and with no possible escape, but hypothermia is an abstract concept until you've had it - or been close. They say that hypothermia is like sunstroke, in that once you've had it, you're more prone to it, but on the flip side, the pain of either tends to arm one not to experience it again (a bit like being kicked in the balls I guess).

But some forms of pain and trauma can be experienced second-hand, generally, in the form of a warning, a way to avoid the worst forms of pain and trauma, often terminal. When we watch people taking bad whippers and ground falls on Youtube, we often watch because we're learning something in the process (wear a helmet, don't let the rope go behind your leg, don't belay too far from the base, place plenty of good gear). Watching people get hurt, or nearly get hurt, is just the same as reading or listening to it, a great deal of climbing literature and folklore is fundamentally instructional.

If you want to test the power of this theory, of the power of pain, but thinking about the dangers of free soloing, or you can read the story of a climber taking a 200 fall from a solo, and surviving. As you read his words, take a moment to analyse what you're feeling and what positives that feeling you feel might one day bring.


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