No Pain , No Gain

My earliest memory of this saying was in grade school. I watched Sister Marie Elizabeth slam a kids head up against the wall during recess. That was the punishment for misbehaving in the schoolyard. You had to stand against the brick building and watch everyone else running around; a form of penance. My memory of it is clear. I was jumping rope and… what’s his name? Oh, the bad kid… what’s his name? Okay, maybe not crystal clear. What is burned into my memory is that the principal, who students affectionately called “The Crow,” grabbed a young boy by the collar and cracked his head on the wall of penance saying, “No pain, no gain.”

Where did this idiom come from anyway? What was the original intent? Was the pious penguin justified in her use of it when she was scaring a child more than half her size? Let’s find out.

“No pain, no gain,” is a very old proverb. Its oldest ancestor appears in the play Electra in the fifth century BCE. Sophocles wrote, “There’s no success without pain.” (Hooray! I’m using my theatre degree!) Anything really good stands the test of time – as does this. Renditions of it show up in history several times, but the one I find most interesting, and this one is for all you American history buffs out there, is by our very own Benjamin Franklin.

In a 1734 essay, Ben attempts to illustrate the axiom, “God helps those who help themselves.” Under the pseudonym Poor Richard, he wrote, “Industry need not wish… and he that lives upon hope will die fasting. There are no gains, without pains… stick to it steadily and you will see great effects.” Was he really such a positive thinker?

In the modern era this adage is associated with exercise and self betterment. In gyms and health centers it’s spray painted on the walls for encouragement. It’s printed on cheap t-shirts and sold in the gift shop for more than it is worth. It’s what the guy next to you in the weight room yells every time he does another rep.

A year and a half ago I started experiencing elbow pain. My orthopedic physician diagnosed me with tennis elbow. It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but, believe me, it’s god damn awful. I was told that I needed a cortisone shot. When I asked what the other options were, he told that I’d have to “suffer a little bit for a year,” and then I can get surgery. “You know, no pain, no gain.” First of all, could you be more cliché? Secondly, why am I on a fast track to the operating room without doing tests, trying therapy or getting a second opinion? And third, what am I gaining?

I guess he meant that the gain would be with the insurance company. There are certain hoops insurance companies make you jump through before approving procedures and treatments. I suppose he meant I would be gaining ground with the hoop jumping or perhaps he was speaking about his own gain … of my copay every time I went back to get another shot.

The real gain, in hindsight, is knowledge; stupid life experience. Now, who sounds cliché? I have since changed doctors and actually had x-rays and an MRI done. Even though the diagnosis is still the same, I now feel like I can make an informed opinion about my medical care. I didn’t feel that with the first doc. I was just another number being forced to wait an hour before being rushed out of the office without having my concerns addressed.

It is always okay to get a second assessment or to change doctors. Is it stubbornness or embarrassment that deters us from taking control of our own healthcare? I want to have a positive relationship with my doctor. I want to know I am being listened to and I want to trust the person who is doing the listening.

What does it mean to you? No pain, no gain. I wonder what it meant to Sister Marie Elizabeth.


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