“Pain is our friend.” Richard delivered this statement matter-of-factly, as if he fully expected a fellow senior sojourner to automatically express wholehearted agreement. However, honestly, in that moment, I had no idea how to respond to what sounded like completely twisted logic.
Pain is our friend? Really? Not once in my 67 years had I looked at physical suffering as a comrade, as an ally. Friends are fun. Pain is an absolute drag. Friends lift my spirits. Pain makes me grouchy. What could be even remotely friendly about something as unpleasant, as unwelcome, as painful as pain?
It was a lovely early afternoon in July — Independence Day, 2017, to be exact. Richard and I were a pair of seasoned strangers meeting at random on the street — except that the street was Oregon Highway 101. Richard was mid-excursion, cycling solo from his Oregon beach cabin to San Francisco. I was traveling in the opposite direction — on foot, as I’d done for 65 days — on a 900-mile trek from Southern California back home to the Central Oregon Coast.
“Share the Road” signs advise motorists to keep their eyes peeled and provide wide berth to bicyclists. However, more than two months of walking the roadways of California and Oregon had instructed me that “Share the Road” also represents an unspoken creed espoused by the two-wheel set. Pushing my cart in the bike lane, against traffic, made me an inconvenient impediment. Still, as riders were forced to swing out onto the highway to circumvent me, they almost always offered smiles, waves, or the occasional V-fingered peace sign. And, it was not at all uncommon for a curious cyclist to stop for a convivial chat — as did Richard on this particular July afternoon.
I was relishing a dual sense of accomplishment and relief, having conquered the long, unforgiving slope from Pistol River to the crest of Cape San Sebastian. Commencing my descent down the Cape’s north side brought me face to face with a large, white-bearded cyclist, huffing and puffing, spinning his spokes against gravity. Encountering a cart-pushing pilgrim gave the pooped-out pedal pusher a perfect excuse to take a break. Astride his bike, with labored breath, Richard proceeded to compliment the unique architecture of my push cart.
“Yeah, it works pretty well,” I remarked of the ingenious, jury-rigged design. Concocted by my brother Theo, “The Pilgrimmobile” was basically a fiberglass storage box — packed with an acoustic guitar, camping gear, and clothing for every kind of weather — wedged securely into the frame of a tri-wheel jogging-stroller.
“But,” Richard pointed out, “you can’t coast, can you.” An astute observation. A cyclist fights gravity on the way up the hill. But he can always look forward to that same force doing all the work on the other side. For me, pushing that 90-pound cart up a lengthy six-degree grade amounted to labor worthy of a Volga Boatman. However, the descent only offered a different, but equally grueling, often more-painful challenge. Every step became potentially precarious. A single fragment of loose gravel, an unseen divot, or a slick patch could easily invite catastrophe. Grasping the stroller handle, with my toes jamming into the ends of my sneakers and my knees throbbing from the added impact, every downhill stretch amounted to a struggle against picking up too much speed and momentum and a disastrous loss of control.
Like other intrigued bicyclists before him, Richard inquired as to why this grey-bearded peace pilgrim was pushing a heavy cart along the highway. “I’m just trying to encourage folks to stop shouting at each other,” I explained.
“Well,” Richard chortled, “good luck with that!” Seeing that I didn’t share his level of cynicism, he quickly changed the subject, with an attempt at commiseration: “We do this because we love it, right?” Translation: Are we crazy to put our aging bodies through such torture?
“I have to keep reminding myself,” I confessed, sporting a self-deprecating grin, “no one forced me to do this. I’ve got nobody to blame but myself.”
That was when, with a presumptive nod of his snowy-topped head, Richard offered his puzzling pontification: “Pain is our friend.”
After sharing a few travel stories, two road warriors of advancing age bid one another farewell, heading off in opposite directions. And, as my feet, knees, and knuckles resumed their chorus of complaints, I began pondering Richard’s statement — so unequivocal, yet so mysteriously Zen. Pain is our friend. What could that snarky cyclist/philosopher have meant by those four words?
Bette Davis said, “Getting old is not for sissies.” I know from personal experience… no truer words were ever spoken. It’s my contention that the human body was not designed to last even 60 years, let alone 80, or 90-some. Even a finely crafted machine made from the most durable components eventually goes catawampus — especially if it hasn’t been conscientiously maintained, while being subjected to constant abuse. Through the arrogant tunnel-vision of youth, we can only see forever ahead of us. Eventually, we discover we weren’t bulletproof after all. Over time, wear and tear inevitably take their toll.
My mind flashed back a few years, and having drinks with some new acquaintances. Out of the blue, Rachel, 50-ish, asked me, “Does it hurt?” My expression — furrowed brow and squinted eyes — begged for clarification. “Getting old,” she elaborated, “does it hurt?” Admittedly, it stung a bit that an attractive woman 15 years my junior saw me as a credible source of this information.
My answer was a succinct, unambiguous, “Yes” — not because I had any desire to reinforce Rachel’s obvious dread of the ravages of time, but because it’s true… getting old does hurt! And, quite frankly, I don’t like it one little bit. I don’t embrace Time any more than I would willingly give Time’s pal, Pain, an affectionate hug. Pain is our friend? My foot! (Incidentally, if that makes me a sissy in Bette Davis’ eyes, I can live with that.)
Still, as I trekked northward on that Fourth of July, those four surprising words, uttered with such certainty by a long-in-the-tooth bicyclist named Richard, kept echoing in my head. Pain is our friend. Pain is our friend. Then, in a flash, I had an epiphany — personally profound, yet elemental in its existential, universal truth…
Yes, blisters had formed under my toenails. Those nails turned black. Some had fallen off, leaving tender, inflamed flesh for their jagged replacements to stab into. My rigid, arthritic, left big toe ached, while my chronically sore right metatarsus shrieked with every step. Day after day, mile after mile, pushing the weighty Pilgrimmobile up paved hill and down, racked my knees, ankles, wrists, and forearms with trauma.
But, even while enduring all of that pain, I hadn’t, over these 65 days, felt old — not for a single second! This pain was not that of a body breaking down under the increasing weight of time. This was the pain I freely signed up for. This was a pilgrim’s pain. This pain motored me to the top of Cape San Sebastian and was bridging the chasm between meeting a snarky cyclist named Richard and whatever my next nourishing human encounter might be. This was the pain I bedded down with every night, the nagging reminder that another day of putting one foot in front of the other had brought me yet another dozen miles nearer to my goal.
It seems curious that we humans so often choose to experience pain. I’m not, of course, referring to the unexpected, accidental tribulations of life: grief, heartache, bone fractures, and back spasms. I’m talking about the kind of pain that resides in that old cliché, “No pain, no gain.” So, here’s what I’ve decided, and happily: If a bearable measure of that kind of pain can drown out the sound of an all-too-rapidly ticking clock, that’s a tradeoff this aging pilgrim will gladly accept.
If that was what Richard meant with his twisted logic, this fellow senior sojourner does agree after all — wholeheartedly. Richard, you are absolutely correct. Pain is our friend, indeed!