“Pain is weakness leaving the body”

Arlington National Cemetery

See also – New for 2012: The wars we wage – of sport, concussion, and our warrior stylePart IPart II

I’ve been thinking a lot about this statement as it’s used in contact/collision sports, especially after reading this post over at The Concussion Blog. Something about hearing high school athletes saying, “Pain is weakness leaving the body” has always gone against my grain, so I’m doing some digging in search of what’s behind that for me. What I’m discovering is a vein of frustration that runs deep.

I seem to remember having heard this statement used in a military context, so I Googled the quote and found this over at Urban Dictionary:

“Pain is weakness leaving the body”
The above is a piece of propaganda used by the US Marine Recruiting office to get more people to join the marines. Its also figuratively true, and very effective in their commercials.

Pain is weakness leaving the body

If you punch a tree over and over again every day for a few years your hand won’t be broken (unless you punched TOO hard). Instead, it will be toughed, and calloused, and you will be able to take far more pain.

When a problem in life is emotionally painful you are emotionally scarred. But if you learn from it, the emotional scars will scab over and you will be a strong, more experienced and mature person because of it. When this occurs, as long as your emotional pain does not destroy you, it will eventually make you strong if you allow it too.

If you run 15 miles daily for a year, your body will be in a lot of pain, especially the first month or two. By the end of the year, your muscles would be so broken down and rebuilt you would be very strong, provided you had enough nutrients, water, and rest during the year. If you tried to do the same with 50 miles a day, you would end up dead.

Pain truly is weakness leaving the body, provided that the pain inflicted is small enough that you can handle it and grow from it, emotionally or physically.

The complete statement and the information behind it is important. For a number of reasons.

First, the statement is classic propaganda — a partial truth used in a way that triggers emotions that motivate you to take action that is not necessarily something you would do if you thought about things logically. It uses emotion and a promise of fulfilling a wish (to become tougher, less susceptible to pain) to induce someone to sign up for duty which may in fact result in their death.

Second, the grandly succinct  statement is followed by an explanation that tempers and explains the statement, but which is left out and forgotten in the repetition of the simple statement “Pain is weakness leaving the body.”

  • your hand won’t be broken (unless you punched TOO hard)
  • as long as your emotional pain does not destroy you
  • provided you had enough nutrients, water, and rest during the year.
  • If you tried to do the same with 50 miles a day, you would end up dead. 
  • provided that the pain inflicted is small enough that you can handle it and grow from it, emotionally or physically

All of these qualifiers are absent — absolutely absent — from the implied bad-ass-ness of the statement

Pain is weakness leaving the body

And that serves only to cloud the issue and completely gloss over the qualifiers which are about as easily remembered as the fine print on a contract you sign for crappy cell phone service, only to discover that you’re locked in for 2 years without any hope of escape, unless you pay boocoo bucks.

Seriously, how many people qualify this pronouncement with the bullet points above? See how this sounds…

Pain is weakness leaving the body — so long as you just take it in little bits and pieces and eat right and rest up enough to recover from the damage you’ve done to yourself. You really need to heal, you know…”

“Pain is weakness leaving the body — so long as you don’t do such a job on yourself that you’re impaired for life. Just be careful!”

“Pain is weakness leaving the body — so long as it’s meted out and supervised by a trained professional who has a full medical staff to back them up and get you the proper care, if you overdo it.”

You don’t hear anyone saying that, do you? It sounds silly — and a lot less tough than the 6-word announcement that implies that once you have expelled all weakness, you will feel no more pain.

Third, this is a military statement intended for legal adults… who are going off to situations where they are to be trained to kill and to die. This is not a small thing. For someone facing imminent death – as is always the chance, when you go into battle – ignoring pain is not an option, it’s a requirement. It’s life and death, and perhaps the most important quality a soldier can cultivate is the willingness to sacrifice ALL for their cause. There is no tomorrow. There is only today — This moment alone. And whatever sacrifices you make are (ostensibly) for the greater good. If you’re crippled or maimed or brain-injured, it’s for a greater cause — something much larger and far more vast than anything most of us can imagine.  Plus, it’s your job. Granted, it doesn’t make survival any easier, especially if you come home to a country that’s ill-prepared (or willing) to help you back into civilian life, but the bottom line is, serving in that capacity is about putting everything on the line, and it could very well mean your destruction.

Is this the kind of mentality and approach we want for high school football games, which are by their very nature transitory introductions into the larger “field of play” of adult life? Is this the ethos we want 16-years-olds to espouse? Lay it all – everything – on the line, with no regard for the rest of their lives past that game, never mind that it can maim them permanently… and for what? And do we want our student athletes to treat others on the field like enemy combatants — like Al-Quaeda or domestic terrorists who deserve to be obliterated? Do we want to blur the lines about who’s the enemy and who is not, on the playing field and off? Do we want to teach our next generation to use their bodies as weapons against perceived threats, with no thought to the consequences? Life-altering concussions and brain injuries in high school sports are the most cruel of injuries — you may end up sacrificing everything for something that ultimately doesn’t really matter (aside from fond memories later on down the line). Or you could end up doing the same to someone else.

And for what?

Let’s put this in perspective, shall we? Serving your country is a high honor that demands more from those who serve than many people would be willing to do for anyone or anything. It is life and death. It is the stuff that turns the world. It is what makes and breaks countless lives and nations and cultures. It happens on a scale that utterly dwarfs a high school football game — a season — the whole Friday night lights culture.

Hearing high school athletes using that kind of language runs so roughly against every fiber of my being — my great-uncle was killed on D-Day on the beaches of Normandy in WWII and was posthumously awarded a Bronze Star for single-handedly holding his machine gun position on the beach and pinning down the German gunners, so that “his section could maneuver into strategic positions”… and we could prevail. Pain was — for him — weakness leaving the body.

How does this compare to a Friday night lights contest? I don’t want to take away from the importance of the game for anyone, but members of my extended family have paid the ultimate price on the field of battle. Even the ones who survived, returned to suffer for decades with the wounds of their war. To them, the honor of that statement belongs.

Fourth — and I think this is perhaps the most important — the belief by high school students that they should shrug off pain and play through it, is utterly erroneous. Because we’re talking about students — young people still growing and maturing, whose bodies and brains have a ways to go till maturity. I’m not taking away from anyone, I’m just trying to put this in perspective. When you are 14, 15, 16, 17 years old, you have years to go before you are fully mature. It’s not a slight, not an insult. It’s the truth. The human brain doesn’t get out of its youthful development phase till you’re 24 years old. I repeat, 24 years old. If you are 14, 15, 16… and you sustain a brain injury (as I did — several times), you have at least 8 years left before your brain can be said to have stopped that early maturation phase. What effect early concussions have on the developing brain, we have yet to find out.

Now, I was in as much of a hurry to grow up when I was in high school as the next person. I was even in a hurry when I was in junior high. But when I was growing up, being an adult — proving you were a real man or a real woman — was not about playing games and battling pain — it was about going out, getting a job, being a responsible individual who could hold their own in adult company, both intellectually and logistically. The most mature peers of mine were the ones who had jobs at night or after school and all weekend, who had real-world responsibilities in the workplace and who cared more about paying their taxes and keeping their cars running, than scoring touchdowns on the field. Football players were popular, sure. But everybody knew, the real men were the guys who were the night supervisors at the local department store or supermarket, who had their own cars and saved their money for a house or education.

Maybe it’s just the time I was raised in, as well as the area where I grew up — which was rural and of old-school hard-working northern European extraction.  But it seems to me, as I look around, there is far less emphasis now on students going out and getting jobs and learning to work, than there is on participation in sports. Maybe it’s a class thing. Nouveau riche parents don’t want their kids to have to work. They want to show the world that they’re wealthy enough to educate their kids and give them every advantage.  But the area where I grew up was a rural, working class farming environment, and the most valuable inheritance from your parents and community was learning how to be a productive member of society. If you wanted to be a grown-up, you worked, you didn’t just “work out”.

I’m probably being harsh, but this is serious stuff that just drives me NUTS… not least of all because this is the next generation of Americans who are being harmed by this inappropriately applied philosophy. If I rant, it is out of love for my country and concern for perfectly healthy young people with so much potential for making a difference in the world… our true Homeland Security… who are harmed by the foolishness and narrow-mindedness and short-sightedness of adults who themselves may have been brain injured in their own high school careers, and whose judgment may be blurred because of it.

Who’s going to let their kids’ future be impacted by someone whose own capacity for risk assessment is impaired, whose own head injuries were undiagnosed, and who may in fact be suffering from an invisibly spreading assault on the brain that can only be detected by specific chemicals dropped onto thin slices of their frozen brains after they have died?

Seriously folks, let’s get real about the impact that CTE and repeated concussions has had on the whole discussion about football, to begin with. Dave Duerson was in charge of determining if his former teammates were in need of medical assistance, and while he denied many of their claims, he himself was impaired by his own undetected and unacknowledged neurological medical issues. It seems to me that the strongest opponents of amending football’s deliberately harmful violence probably need to undergo neuropsychological testing, themselves, to see if they are even competent to discuss this. It’s not a slight. It’s just objective consideration.

I’m ranting, I know. But seriously, lives are at stake. When I think of all the pain and suffering I’ve been through because of my own multiple sports-related concussions, and I think of all the student athletes out there who may be experiencing the same thing — even worse — because people are too busy denying there’s a problem or downplaying it, all the while telling student athletes that they should ignore (or even welcome) pain, because it’s “weakness leaving the body” — it makes my blood boil. Yes, I have come a long way since my last injury. Yes, I have overcome a great deal, and I’m living proof that concussion and repeated mTBI doesn’t need to destroy your life. But the price I have paid… I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. My brain injuries started before I was old enough to protect myself and make conscious choices, and in years before anyone knew enough to take my injuries seriously. A number of my mTBIs were also accidents. The thought that adults are putting students in harm’s way out of arrogance and ignorance, incurring completely needless and avoidable injuries, and not giving them proper treatment… all the while reinforcing the “don’t be a pussy” mindset by saying “Pain is weakness leaving the body,” and increasing the risks… it’s almost unfathomable. In this day and age? With all that we know? How is this possible? (Unless it’s directly related to prior head injuries among the people who are debating the issues — I’m just sayin’…)

If you take nothing else away from this (given my rant), I hope you at least take this:

Pain for a student athlete is NOT weakness leaving the body.

It is the body telling the mind that it needs to STOP doing what it is doing, because IT IS DOING DAMAGE TO ITSELF. The reason we feel pain in the first place, is because our bodies are detecting a threat that we are either not aware of, or we are ignoring. It’s the body’s way of saying, “Knock it off – you are harming me.” And the more pain there is, the higher the stakes. Pain is not a frivolous distraction, the domain of pussies and pansies. It is a real thing, the one  (and sometimes only) way the body has to communicate to us when we are being idiots about protecting our own safety. Pain should be respected and listened to, not dismissed as the price you pay for character development.

If you’re in anything but a life-and-death situation where the risk of losing everything outweighs the damage you’re doing to your body, well, that false-bravado attitude is just plain stupid.

For my great uncle on the beachhead near Colleville-sur-Mer in France on June 6, 1944, it made sense to ignore whatever pain he experienced, because it was for a higher purpose — the protection of his section’s mission, and the overthrow of the Nazi regime. He also was a 24-year-old man who left school when he was younger and his father became ill, and he supported his family with two jobs. On D-Day, that man made the ultimate sacrifice, “realizing that he was facing certain death… ” His was a “heroic, self-imposed mission” and he made a conscious choice in an honest-to-God real life battle that would have lasting consequences. His sacrifice served someone else, not just his own ego.

But the sacrifice of young brains — young lives — for the sake of staying in a school-age game… whom does this serve? The game is passing, but injury and struggle and difficulty are lasting. And who bears the brunt of the pain? The former player, not the coaches and other players who pushed them to stay in.

Concussion and brain injury (even “mild” traumatic brain injury) is no laughing matter, and it’s not something to be shrugged off. It has consequences. It often comes at an extremely steep price.

Pain is not always weakness leaving the body. Sometimes it’s weak-mindedness betraying the body.