Feel My Pain

Aug 18, 2014

Everybody loves a mountain, especially if they can drive up to the summit instead of climbing. The most popular and highest mountain in the south of France is called Mount Aigoual, standing a little over five thousand feet, which has two excellent roads leading to the top. Our little Fiat 500 just made it, and we were rewarded with a spectacular panorama. What took away some of the pleasure was the pain and suffering of the many cyclists who, for mysterious reasons of their own, had decided to ride all the way up the mountain, a distance of twenty-two miles, not a single one of them flat. There were dozens of cyclists,  maybe hundreds, all bathed in sweat with agonized faces and leg muscles that stood out like steel cables at breaking point. Nobody as far as I know was forcing them to do this, it was their own choice.

I can see that coasting down the mountain would be fun. When I was a kid my friends and I used to ride to a nearby hill and puff our way up to the top, just so we could come zooming down again. But our hill was only about a quarter of a mile long, probably no more than fifty feet high at the summit.

Human nature is unfathomable, although Sigmund Freud among many others tried to fathom it. Psychologists have long recognized the existence of a phenomenon called masochism, the ability to get pleasure from pain.It seems to explain a lot about human nature, although we might be happier if it explained less. The world is full of examples. In addition to the cyclists we saw people actually walking the twenty-two miles up that mountain, carrying heavy backpacks. The trek takes eight hours. The diagnosis seems obvious.

Painful activities are extraordinarily popular – marathon running, all kinds of athletics, eating healthy diets, camping, and so on.I read about a forty-six mile off-road triathlon in Sweden that must be a kind of benchmark for miserable experiences. "It’s about taking as much pain as possible," said one of the organizers. Indeed enthusiasts like to say "Feel the pain" with a kind of pride. But plenty of people with arthritis feel the pain – there’s no virtue in it.

Pain is not a pleasure only for young people. Before climbing the mountain in our Fiat we had visited a famous spa nearby. This offered cures for just about everything, including old age, with a combination of sulphur baths and massage, with the additional option of being covered in honey as a special treat. The stink of sulphur and honey in the place was quite literally nauseating, so we only stayed long enough to see a row of already-processed victims,people at the other end of life but still keen to suffer, sitting hollow-eyed on plastic chairs, wrapped in white robes, and obviously glad that it was all over.

That may be the answer of course. We enjoy suffering when it stops, when we get to the top of the mountain or climb out of the sulphur bath. It’s the anticipation of relief that gives us courage, and the anticipated sense of superiority. Not me, I don’t like pain. I go to considerable lengths to avoid it. But am I missing out on the pleasure of pain? Should I be torturing myself, just for the fun of it? It’s the kind of question that gives me a headache, but an aspirin should take care of that.

Copyright: David Bouchier