The Human Paradox of Pleasure and Pain
Pleasure is more enjoyable if it is preceded by pain. Suffering is the ultimate source of pleasure.
Humans seek meaning in life. Meaning often comes from doing something that requires effort. The effort required to achieve something meaningful can take on the form of suffering to the extent that it may even be painful.
Here is an example. Having children. The effort that goes into raising kids is monumental. Where is the pleasure? It shows up in many ways. We experience the joy of kids in our unique way, and the pleasure is sprinkled amongst the pain. It’s also an evolutionary trait that is baked into the human species.
Paul Bloom recently published a book called “The Sweet Spot”, in which he explores the contrast between pleasure and pain.
Why would someone run Comrades? I am having this conversation with myself. I see mountains of pain. What is the payoff? Where is the pleasure? It might just be that completing it is a meaningful endeavour. Completing Comrades also sends a signal to others about one’s ability as a runner. For many, it is a rite of passage. For those lucky enough to have a genetic gift, the race might be enjoyable.
All good stories follow a well-known formula. The formula is Joseph Campbell’s “Heros Journey”.
The Heros Journey is about the descent into darkness. The darkness represents the hard and trying times of overcoming something difficult. Early morning training in the dead of winter in preparation for Comrades is an anecdote for the descent into darkness. Add to that some other life struggle that has been holding you back for years, and you have the making of a blockbuster.
While in the depths of darkness, there must be a revelation. The hero/heroine discovers a hidden truth about themselves. This truth might be the self-belief that has been missing their whole life. Self-belief is the catalyst to pushing on and making it to the start line of Comrades. Finishing the race is the reward and the ascent out of the darkness.
Crossing the finish line is like returning home after a long journey of self-discovery. Everyone is waiting and cheering on the hero.
I ran Comrades in 1999 and 2000. It feels like a lifetime ago, and a voice in the back of my head is calling me to do it again. I distinctly remember the pain of the last 30km — both mental anguish and physical pain. But in the last few kilometres, all the pain and anguish disappeared. The close proximity of the finish line is better than any synthetic pain killer.
The goosebumps and adrenaline rush almost seemed worth the pain. Paul Bloom is on to something. There is a sweet spot. It is a balance between pain and pleasure, and like most things in life, we need to find that sweet spot for ourselves.