Live, Play, Travel

Why We Suffer

June 8, 2015

A few days ago I came across a TED Talk by Chris Burkhard, one of my favorite photographers. Chris does the kind of photography that speaks to me in a really big way and I have admired his work for a while. It’s nature photography but with a strong human presence. It’s not just about beautiful places but also about how people interact with those landscapes. I love the human element of nature, the way that we get out and get lost and found in some of the wildest places on earth. And few people tell those stories in pictures better than Chris.

He has a great story and does interesting work. He’s also a very good speaker and his TED Talk is certainly worth a watch:

One of the things that struck me most about this talk is the way he describes suffering, the way one of the happiest moments of his life came from pure pain. The way that he likens extreme discomfort to mindfulness and meditation. How he gets that photography is about so much more than taking pretty pictures. It’s about the story and the struggle. The photos are part of it, but they may not be the most important part.

Any adventure is like that, really. The summit or finish line or post-ride beer is just the exclamation point at the end of the journey. It’s the struggle that you remember. The times that you were sure that you simply did not have another mile, another lap, another climb in your legs. It’s the moments that you were scared. And you kept going.

I can’t claim to have set foot on, much less surfed or shot in, most of the places Chris talks about. But I do understand his descriptions of suffering. I get what it feels like to be so physically miserable that all you know is what is happening in that moment. I know what it’s like to have everything sharpened so much that all that exists is the next breath, the next step, the next pedal stroke. I understand how suffering is both silent and deafeningly loud. How the blood ringing in your ears can drown out the clanging of cowbells. How there is so much joy in all that pain.

And I know what it’s like when the suffering finally, mercifully ends and the calmness seeps in. That moment when your body is shattered but your mind is at ease.

It’s why I do these things that hurt me, over and over again. It may be why you do them too. It’s because, while you get that a bike ride in the neighborhood or a walk in the park may be a nice way to spend a Sunday afternoon, they won’t teach you the same things that you’ll learn grinding it out on the trail or the tarmac. They won’t push you past the point where the demands of your daily life disappear and all that matters is what is right in front of you in that very moment.

Sometimes I think I should slow down, that I should take it a little easier. That maybe just getting out and being active and healthy is enough. And then I realize that the easy road is too easy and cruising the bike path will never leave me satisfied. I need to suffer. I need to be too hot and too cold and too sore and too tired to go anothr mile, another foot. And then I need to do it anyway because that, friends, is the point of all of this.

Through a series of unfortunate events (a month-long battle with bronchitis, a pulled muscle in my ribs, endless rain, seemingly infinite travel for my husband that has left me solo parenting for much of the last few months …) my life lately has been largely devoid of this kind of suffering. And I feel it. I feel the need to get out and pedal my bike up a hill until the air gets thin, my legs turn to lead, and my heart threatens to burst through my ribcage and land right there on the trail in front of me. I need to remember what it is like to hurt and how it feels when all that self-inflicted agony comes to an end. I need to get back at it.

Because I agree with Chris. I agree that suffering is some sort of path to enlightenment and that all that agony can bring nothing but peace. And it’s what always keeps me coming back for more.

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