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No Pain, No Gain

Anyone who ever turned out for high school sports has heard the old adage “No pain, no gain.” Having heard it, a person seldom forgets it, mainly because “No pain, no gain” expresses the Spartan ideal so neatly. As a memorable example of locker-room philosophy, it is right up there with “When the going gets tough, the tough get going,” and “If you can’t bear up, bear down.” But if we take a hard look at it, I think we will find that this hoary adage is true only in a very limited way. As a general guide to life it can be misleading or worse.

The easy case is the obvious case: athletics. If we are talking about football or swimming or running or any other physical endeavor, the advice probably holds true to an extent. The best runner is the one who, literally, goes the extra mile, or two, or four, in his training run every day; the best swimmer does the five or six extra laps until she really does begin to hurt. Superior training will pay off: pain will mean gain. Studying presents a similar case. The student who really hits the books night after night—when he could be partying or at least narcotizing his brain with TV or video games, will usually be rewarded at the end of the term. The pain of denial will become the gain of good grades. What those examples have in common is that they involve very clear and limited practices and objectives. They are almost like laboratory experiments, where x amount of input is going to yield y amount of output.

The trouble begins when we take these very limited cases and try to extrapolate some philosophy of life from them. We have a bad habit of trying to use sports as a metaphor for life, and life doesn’t work that way. Let us consider two examples, one that involves great pain and one that involves great gain, and be honest about what each one means.

First case: a teenager lies in a hospital bed, the cancer busy about its deadly work. The morphine is barely effective anymore. With luck our young friend will live only about three more weeks, but those weeks will be painful beyond imagining. Does this sort of pain imply some strange sort of gain? Second case: my brother-in-law, a witless sloth, buys a two dollar lottery ticket and wins forty million. The gain is undeniable, but he never suffered anything remotely resembling pain.

What is interesting is that we do desperately try to make the sports philosophy stick. We whisper about how suffering has enlarged and ennobled the patient’s soul, giving her a serenity and heroism denied to most of us. Perhaps, in a way that passeth understanding, it can do so; certainly we try to put the best face on suffering and death. But the number of people who would say, “Oh thank goodness that I have contracted a excruciatingly painful and fatal disease—think of the gain!” could easily fit into an old VW beetle with room left over for groceries. As for my brother-in-law, we try to think that his new riches will corrupt him, that he’ll start having cocaine for breakfast. Or that he won’t truly enjoy the Corvette and the Caribbean cruises, not having earned them. In fact, we secretly hope that he will wrap the Corvette around a tree, that he will fall overboard just off Jamaica. This is called “sour grapes.”

“No pain, no gain” is a handy capsule of wisdom. We should just remember to take it in moderation.

Meet Your Macinstructor

Jerome Shea is an emeritus professor of English at the University of New Mexico, where he still teaches his classical tropes course every fall and his prose style course every spring. He has been the Weekend Wonk since January of 2007. His email is


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