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Op-Ed

Nov 22, 2018

“Today, I’m Thankful For…” the Privilege to Suffer

On Thanksgiving, we ask: what allows us to have the experience of trail-running or mountain-climbing in the first place? The luxuries of time and money not spent on survival.

WRITTEN BY

Kela Fetters

As adventure athletes and outdoor enthusiasts, we are intimately familiar with pain. It’s something that many of us choose to live with, and we take it for granted. On Thanksgiving, it’s important to be self aware of this luxury that we are free to enjoy: our own privilege to suffer.

Pain is the fraternal glue that bonds the collective outdoor community together. The elite ultra-marathoner, avid runner, and casual jogger are bound by common experience to the credos of discomfort. It is tacit law that burning quads, blisters, and mind-numbing exhaustion are the domain of the dedicated.

We’re hardwired to minimize effort, right?

We ascend vertically in spite of gravity’s protestations. The mountain biker knows the acute sting of scraped skin or worse following a toss from the saddle. The alpinist has taken whippers, the kayaker endured pounding white water, the backpacker dense mosquito swarms. We do all of it and more for the sake of well-being, pleasure, and connection to the wild places in which we recreate. Be it bicycling or surfing, camping or climbing, skiing or swimming, all outdoor recreation involves a challenge.

We idolize those members of our species who appear to have achieved a transcendent level of pain tolerance. They are the men and women who grace the covers of our adventure magazines. They eat pain for breakfast, run 30 miles, then power-nap while doing pinky push-ups. They are the ultra-marathoners who crunch thousands of vertical feet; the cyclists who pump up and down hills with uninterrupted cadence; the mountaineers who ascend Himalayan peaks in sub-zero temperatures. Their feats are astounding and require an implausible amount of pain and fear management. By all analysis of human behavior—we’re hardwired to minimize effort, right? —performing activities to maximize discomfort seems masochistic. Their successes are incumbent on short-term suffering. But in our fetishization of such successes, we’ve fetishized the suffering.

All too often we neglect in the heroism of our adventure athlete idols and our own Strava-worthy accomplishments the privilege inherent in this form of suffering. Just as the First Thanksgiving wasn’t quite a genial gathering of Pilgrims and Native Americans over turkey and potatoes, our “suffer-fest” celebration necessitates an asterisk. What allows one to have the experience of trail-running or mountain-climbing in the first place? The premium luxuries of time and money.

A decent Ironman bike costs as much as the per capita GDP of a middle-income country.

Statistics compiled by the US Outdoor Industry Organization show that an unsurprising 74% of American outdoor recreators are Caucasian. A sizable 31% of this demographic has a household income of over $100,000 annually, which represents the top 10% of all Americans. In keeping with other measurables (education, housing, employment), outdoor recreation is inequitable. The barriers to entry can be a pair of running shoes or a pricy backcountry skiing setup and a slew of climbing gear. The cost of a decent Ironman bike is as much as the per capita GDP of a reasonably wealthy middle-income country, like Montenegro or Malaysia”. As the result of socioeconomic status, we can spend our free time suffering by choice.

There is another form of suffering, and it is not by choice. An inexcusable portion of the world, due to geographic location or political circumstance, deals with violence, oppression, and illness. For the 43 million Americans receiving federally subsidized food stamps, daily sustenance takes precedence over optimal performance powders and sports gels. For the half million homeless, exposure to the elements is not a rugged escape from urban monotony but an unabating reality. This kind of suffering is not a choice afforded by privilege but allotted due to lack thereof. We can push into a place of deep pain on a punishing climb, but that suffering ends the second we return, wobbly-kneed and woozy, to our cars at the trailhead.

Most of us are aware of such suffering; many of us have lived it or are living it. We can be proud of our athletic achievements, especially in an age where we can shop for groceries from the couch. However, amid the hubbub of fitness fanaticism and athletic adulation, we must remind ourselves of the relatively rare privilege to choose to be hungry, endure physical pain, and put ourselves in harm’s way deliberately and enthusiastically.

A garage full of outdoor toys does not exempt one from the inevitable experiences of pain and suffering. But come tomorrow morning, when we hop on our mountain bikes to do penance for that extra slice of pumpkin pie, let us give thanks for the privilege to recreate and the privilege to suffer.

Want to do more than give thanks? Consider supporting some of our favourite charities: Sierra Club, ATCF, Rewilding Britain / Rewilding Europe, First Descents and Orangutan Foundation

Cover photo by Khamkhor on Unsplash