Take it or leave it.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016


In the movie Rocky III the eponymous protagonist faces his greatest challenge yet, the brutish force of nature known as Clubber Lang. Played by the mohawked Mr. T of A-Team fame (though the hit series came after the blockbuster boxing film), Clubber is asked just before the fight against champion Rocky Balboa to give his prediction of the outcome. A man of few words if many grunts, he sneers at the camera and with spine-tingling intimidation delivers his pat reply: "Pain."

One of the first things an athlete learns is to distinguish between the two types of pain. There is good pain, and there is bad pain. The former visits the competitor when in the course of your effort you reach a limit beyond which you seemingly cannot go, because your lungs burn, and your heart is about to explode, and your legs feel like leaden weights. In training athletes are taught to push beyond this limit, so that in the heat of the battle, be it bout or ballet or whatever else you do for sweat-drenched fun, you can reach new limits, set personal records, maybe even win. Contrast this with the bad pain in which you ignore the body's signals and compete longer than you should, jeopardizing your health, maybe even killing yourself. Which is what happened in the next Rocky film, when Apollo Creed, losing catastrophically to Ivan Drago, orders Rocky not to throw in the towel. Such bravado is his death sentence. The image of Apollo's dying body convulsing on the ground still gives me the heebie jeebies. 

Runners know the difference between good and bad pain just as well as boxers, though they heed it about as often, which is to say not often enough. I've run laps around the track till my lungs were scorched in an effort to set a personal best in the half marathon, which I did, though I didn't win (still, placing 8th in a field of 8000 is not bad). Each lap I ignored the pain, the monotony, the desire to quit, because the cause was worth it, and no pain no gain right? I've also run so many miles in preparation for a marathon that I developed a stress fracture in my foot, and running the last mile home on a broken bone likely made my foot worse. I'm lucky I didn't need surgery. In this case it would have done my body good had I heeded the pain signals, and my desire to quit, and stopped.

Often in life we are confronted by this choice, whether to ignore the pain, meaning to fight through it, or to throw in the towel, call it quits, walk. Especially in the realm of relationships. I was talking with a family friend the other day who brought up the self-help speaker and writer Marianne Williamson, among whose many best-selling books is Illuminata, which my parents owned. My friend loosely quoted the writer when she said that relationships teach you a lot about yourself, and if you think you have it figured out, get involved, "and see how fucked up you really are" seemed to be what was implied. And having been in many romantic relationships myself I can say that relationships are about growth, if the term growing pains has any real relevance - because love, at least as expressed in the traditional coupling, is hard work. But there is also the pain that you should not ignore, that is not for your growth. This bad pain is a sign that things are not working out, not the way they should be; that you are not meant for each other, that "sometimes love just ain't enough," to quote a popular song (by Patty Smyth); that, if you cannot change things, you should "just walk away," (Road Warrior, the original) because some things aren't worth the pain. 

Every day around the world spouses face this very dilemma, and partners everywhere must decide "should I stay or should I go?" An already complicated situation is compounded when kids are in the mix. There are conflicting reports about which harms a child more, parents who stay married but are miserable (and whose misery the child feels, perhaps more than either parent knows) or the unhappily married pair who gets a divorce and now is faced with the task of somehow dividing child rearing not just between schedules that differ but over new geographical distances, which compound the personality differences the parents already face. I've studied both sides of this argument, and I'm still on the fence.

I suppose if you can't amically coparent as a pair, then an amicable divorce would be the next best thing, but who am I to say, having never been married, probably because I knew deep down that like many I'd divorce and find it devastating. Fight the good fight is a way of approaching athletic training. I prefer the train hard, race easy mentality. What is the amorous analog, I wonder?

Suffice it to say that as for conscious coupling and coparenting or whatever variation for "married with kids" you choose to call yourself, you have to know when to say when. The ultimate question is: Will it be forever? Which is to say, for life, or till death. One of life's greatest mysteries, and its most alluring topics for sure, and which most of us have at least considered, maybe more than once. Three out of four divorcees do remarry.

Rocky went on to experience a lot of pain in his two-round hammering at the hands of Mr. T's Clubber, but trained by Apollo he returned to the ring to defeat the champion-for-a-day in what was perhaps the slickest fight in the Rocky franchise. We miss you Apollo. And you too Carl Weathers, wherever you may be.

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