Flappers, Gobies, and the Perception of Pain

Climber hands
Pain isn’t absolute; it is increased or diminished by context. Photo: Leici Hendrix.

“If my hands felt this way because they were burned, it would be really upsetting,” she said. “But because they feel like this from climbing hard, I kind of like it. Is that weird?”

Just back from a long session at the climbing gym, my wife held out her hands, palm up, to display skin worn raw from the sandpapery texture of the plastic holds. The callus just below her knuckle had grown so pronounced that she could no longer squeeze her wedding ring over it. Her fingers were tattered and torn, but she presented them with pride.

I didn’t think it was weird. After all, what athlete hasn’t gotten a sense of satisfaction from the pain of hard work? We climbers nearly always return home with some abrasion or other: scraped knees and elbows and ankle bones, hands covered with gobies from being jammed into cracks, bloody flappers on our fingers were rough stone caught soft skin and didn’t let go…

While these injuries might sound bad to an outsider, they are no less than badges of honor, satisfying reminders that we have, for a time at least, embraced our physicality without holding back. Like the soreness from a hard bike ride up a canyon or long day spent skinning up and skiing down, these wounds are the result of passion and dedication, and the associated pain is transformed for it.

The same week my wife made her observation, I heard via Radiolab about a medical study from 1956 called “Relationship of Significance of Wound to Pain Experienced,” which found that soldiers wounded in battle tended to experience less severe pain than civilians who suffered comparable injuries. The reason, the study suggested, wasn’t that soldiers are tougher than everyone else, but that their injuries meant something different to them.

For a soldier in WWII, a gunshot wound might mean a trip home, a way back to the things he loved. For a civilian, the same wound carried little upside: would he be able to work? Would insurance cover the medical bills? How would the injury affect his family? Civilians with gunshot wounds experienced pain more profoundly, amplified as it was by mental anguish, and asked for more painkillers as a result.

“The pain that you feel when you’re hit by the bullet is not just about the bullet,” explains Robert Krulwich in the Radiolab episode titled “Placebo.” “It’s just as much about the story that comes with the bullet.”

Another example of this: have you ever noticed the way professional athletes respond to serious injury, like a torn ACL or badly sprained ankle? The pain visibly grips their bodies and contorts their faces as they lie on the field or the court. Clearly, it hurts like hell, but I think what we’re seeing is the reaction to the frightening implications of such an injury. “For many athletes, their sport is their identity. An injury that takes them out of the game can feel like the end of the world,” wrote a blogger on the topic.

The decades-old study and my wife’s observation went hand in hand. Pain, like so many of the things we experience, is as much in the mind as in the body. When we look at our pain from one angle, it is only pain, only a bad thing. When we come at it from another direction, it becomes a sign of dedication or a chance to grow. Taking control of our inner perception of things, rather than seeking merely to control things themselves, is among the biggest challenges we face in this life, but also, I think, among the most important.


You Need To Rest

You Need to Rest

“Take rest; a field that has rested gives a bountiful crop.”
– Ovid

As I write this post, I’m recovering from a cold. It came on suddenly Friday, starting with a tickle in the throat, and quickly escalated to fits of sneezing, a dripping nose, and glassy, red-rimmed eyes. Today, with flower-print tissue boxes planted all around the house and a dwindling supply of DayQuil, I have almost recovered.

Still, I move through a viscous atmosphere. Sounds and sensations are dampened. When I recline, I slip naturally into a womb-like sleep. In this sickened state, my body requires rest and I have decided not to fight it. What would be the point? To push too hard would only draw out my illness. As the Zen teacher Bankei said, “When I feel hungry, I eat. When I feel thirsty, I drink. That is my miracle.” When I’m tired, I rest. I have learned the hard way the consequences of not doing so.

Climbers are prone to obsessive activity. We want to be stronger and lighter all the time, so we train and diet and train. And because most of us climb for personal reasons and not for any specific competition or event, we don’t usually work in cycles (periodization, in sports training terms). We expect constant progression — every trip to the crag or the gym should be better than the one before. We live by the fallacy that more climbing or more training is always better. Day and night, summer and winter, birth and death, action and rest… everything around us moves to an undulating rhythm, and so do we. When we ignore our cycles or fight against them, we fall out of balance. We only hurt ourselves.

There’s a story* about a man who complains to his teacher, the Zen master Mokusen, of his wife’s unflagging stinginess. Mokusen goes to see the wife and holds his clenched fist in her face.

“Suppose my fist were always like that. What would you call it?” he asked.

“Deformed,” replied the woman.

The he opened his hand flat in her face and asked: “Suppose it were always like that. What then?”

“Another kind of deformity,” said the wife.

“If you understand that much,” finished Mokusen, “you are a good wife.” Then he left.

After his visit, this wife helped her husband to distribute as well as to save.

To this day in America, we cling to a puritanical sense of industriousness that birthed adages like, “Idle hands are the devil’s plaything,” or, to quote Ben Franklin, “Waste not life; in the grave will be sleeping enough.” On college campuses, in executive offices, in athletic endeavors, even at home, we live in a culture of burnout. We glorify the epic and the “all-nighter.” We are all in a race, it seems, but for some reason we rarely ask ourselves: Why? To where? Against whom? Metaphysical pondering aside, proper rest has been shown to be critical in maximizing both physical performance and creativity.

After I finished college, I worked in a climbing gym. I wasn’t sure what I wanted from my life, from my career, but I knew that I liked to climb, and that it felt good to improve. So I trained. I trained or climbed (often both) five days a week, sometimes more. For a time, it worked. I scored several personal bests. But my gains were short-lived, and today I still pay the price. My left shoulder pops and aches, and whenever I start to feel fit, its weakness limits my progress. I felt the damage happening, but I was young and surrounded by obsessive climbers; injury was just part of the game. Despite physical therapy, I’ve never managed to return my shoulder to a fully healthy state. I have learned many lessons from this challenge, but none more important than the value of rest.

It is a particularly tricky problem for us climbers — we love what we do and our culture romanticizes the most extreme behaviors as admirable examples of passion and commitment. Because of this, it is easy to forget that balance between effort and rest is, for most of us, the best way to improve and, more importantly, to take joy in what we do.


* The story “Mokusen’s Hand” can be found in the excellent book Zen Flesh Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings.

Injured Reserve

At my office, we enjoy the luxury of an in-house climbing wall. Located in the vicinity of the warehouse and measuring 15 or 20 feet in height and maybe 50 feet in length, it’s no Excalibur Tower, but it does offer a goodly amount of bouldering for the vertically inclined among us. On any given day, around the lunch hour, you might find three, four, or even five individuals climbing there, music pumping from a boombox in the corner. When the weather is right, we open the loading-bay door to let in the fresh air and sunlight. But for some reason lately, the number of people rehabbing shoulder injuries in the workout area has equalled the number of climbers. Perhaps it was the long winter spent pulling plastic. For me, it’s yet another cycle in a longstanding rotator-cuff issue that’s been plaguing me for years.

It all started when I worked at the rock wall at Chelsea Piers. I climbed at that damned wall five days a week, adding on campusing and hangboarding and weight lifting… Basically, I overdid it. One day, when I was campusing past the point of exhaustion, my left shoulder started to ache and feel weak. I backed off, even did a few months with a physical therapist, but things would never be quite the same. To this day every time I start to get fit and work on “harder” routes and problems, my shoulder falls apart. It gets loose, pops, and generally hurts. When I try to pull with my left arm, everything just kind of powers down. On a recent outing in Joe’s Valley, I had to find workarounds for sequences that, were they on my right side, would have been piss. So, once again, I’ve decided to stop climbing for a while and attempt to address the problem.

My friend Rick, whose shoulder was similarly in a state of disrepair, visited an orthopedic specialist not long ago. He came back with a Xeroxed list of exercises called the “Thrower’s 10,” which, as the name would imply, was developed to help those engaged in throwing activities (pitchers, quarterbacks, dodgeball players) recover from and prevent injuries to the all-too-vulnerable shoulder joint. Rick took some time off climbing and did the Thrower’s 10 religiously, reporting excellent results. I have decided to follow suit and will report back with my findings.

Still, all this has me wondering: Why have so many of my friends and co-workers been injured as of late? And why, specifically, have they had shoulder issues? If I were to hypothesize, I might guess that it is the nature of climbing on plastic, with its high friction and lack of intermediate holds. On plastic, people end up doing a lot of long, dynamic moves and snagging distant grips with very jarring results. Of course, it could just be that we’re getting old…

I was also interested to see that there still don’t seem to be any exercises specifically for climbers with shoulder issues. At least, I have not come across any. These throwers movements seem fairly universal and may well do the trick for climbers, but I imagine there are some very important differences between the act of throwing and the act of pulling down that are not addressed in the Thrower’s 10. The overdevelopment of the lats common in climbers, for example, and the way that can pull the shoulder joint out of alignment. I know a climber who is also an orthopedic surgeon, so perhaps it’s time to see if he has any suggestions for rehab exercises. I’ll report back with any findings on this front, too.

If you have have any tips, tricks, or tales of injury woe, please do share.

Until then…