Recently a young Facebook friend had ACL reconstruction. K is sixteen, an athlete, the daughter of friends I’ve known since early-married days. I haven’t seen her or her family in years, but based on her status posts and what I know about her parents, I’d venture to say she’s pretty tough. She made a post-op status report on Facebook from the recovery room, calling the surgery a success and the pain level “doable.” If I remember rightly, two different guys then commented on her status, telling K she was “lucky” her pain level was so low and she wasn’t suffering as they had with their own orthopedic surgeries.
And this really got me thinking. As far as I know, medical science has no objective standard by which to quantify pain, no unit of measurement like decibels or lumens or points on a Richter scale. Therefore we have no way of knowing whether the guys who made the comments really suffered more than K—but they assumed so, based on K’s comment that her own pain level was “doable.”
What does doable mean, anyway? Just that K could manage it. And that’s what “pain tolerance” comes down to. Having a high pain tolerance doesn’t mean your nerve endings are tougher than other people’s and don’t register pain as acutely. It means just what the name denotes: a high capacity to tolerate pain. It’s not about what you feel; it’s about what you can handle.
Some years back, Greg had his own ACL reconstruction reconstructed (the original surgery had been done in the eighties, and the repair had worn out). He approached physical therapy with all the ready determination of an athlete eager to return to top form as quickly as possible. During their initial meeting, the physical therapist asked Greg this question: “On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being perfectly comfortable and 10 being get me to the emergency room, what is your pain level right now?” Greg replied, “About a 2.” The therapist later told Greg that this was a baseline question he asked all his patients to determine their pain tolerance. He said it wasn’t unusual for a patient to respond, “Oh, about an 8,” while sitting quite calmly in his office.
This is just one example of a disturbing trend I’ve been observing for years. When someone is particularly successful at something, there is always some naysayer who attributes that success to natural talent, good genetics—in short, luck. By this reasoning, the success has no merit. It was a mere accident, like the hair color you were born with or your date of birth. Are you happily married? Then you obviously haven’t been through the fire like some folks, or else you and your spouse happen to have excellent natural compatibility. Do you have good kids? Then they must not be “strong-willed.” Are you in good shape physically? Lucky you! You can thank the genes that gave you a healthy metabolism and a propensity to build muscle easily.
Now, some folks obviously start out life far better equipped than others in terms of health, wealth, family support, early character training, educational opportunities, et cetera. And some folks have tougher circumstances to cope with later on. (And, yes, some folks react differently than others to anesthetic.) Far be it from me to deny the importance of unearned blessings when I’ve received so many myself. The whole nature-versus-nurture debate is a frequent topic for discussion in our household. How much of a life’s outcome can be attributed to the genetic package a person was born with? How much to the environment he was raised in? And (my own contribution to the debate) how much to his own will? We can’t set up an experiment to answer these questions; we can only observe and speculate. But I’ve noticed that people who achieve great things tend to attribute their success to hard work. I’m inclined to take their word for it; I figure they ought to know.
American society in general, though, seems to be giving more and more credit to the “nature” side of the equation. Any really stellar level of achievement, whether academic or artistic or athletic or whatever, is automatically attributed to “natural ability,” effectively negating the achiever’s own responsibility for his success. By this reasoning, success is really no success at all, only a circumstance. It’s a shocking self-contradiction, a mirror-image anti-logic that leaves me speechless and more than a little annoyed.
“Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! Woe unto them that are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight!” (Isaiah 5:20, 21)
Okay. I know that in quoting the above I’m overstating my case. I don’t really expect woe to fall on people for the careless semantics I’ve been describing. But I will say that there is something very, very wrong with the sort of reasoning that calls a thing its opposite, and that this carelessness will have consequences, if only in the habits and character it fosters. I have said before and I will say again: you cannot monkey around with the language without it coming back one day to bite you.