Playing Through the Pain

I’ve written recently about violence in our everyday lives, in our shared social world. For many of us, this violence is internal and personal as well. Even though I aspire to self-love and self-care, I fall back into patterns of negative self-talk and “playing through the pain.” I continue to push myself even when I recognize the desire to slow down. I do violence to myself even when I set the intention of being gentler, kinder, and more forgiving. With this recognition, I’m setting an intention to re-purpose play in my life—to redefine what it means to “play through the pain.”

I set this intention during a guided healing session last week, in which I embraced the affirmation: I flow freely with life.

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This affirmation invokes a sense of playfulness, lightness, wonder, awe, and joy. Still, I walked out of that healing session and set to work, not to play.

Within a day or two, my back started speaking up, getting louder in its complaints. I continued over-working and over-stretching. My back responded with more pain, enough to limit mobility and enough that I had to STOP and LISTEN.

I have a history of back pain (degenerative disc disease), which has motivated me to learn and practice yoga, Reiki, and other healing modalities. This history has taught me how to manage acute pain. Care includes specialized pillows and heating pads, homeopathy and balms, and gentle movements like rolling on the floor and floating in the pool.

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To care for my pain, I took to the swimming pool—a place where I also have a history, but a history with good memories. I think of warm summer days, fieldtrips with friends, and the summer camp I longed for year-round in childhood. I remember unexpected triathlon training during graduate school that allowed me to find strength as a lap swimmer. I love swimming not only for this history, but also for the fun of movement. I repeat mantras and think through complicated questions as I propel myself forward. I kick and flail and float and surely look silly. I allow my body to make big movements and to take up space. And after this play, I soak in the hot tub, taking time to relax. Truly, I enjoy myself.

Despite my love for swimming, I don’t often do it. I complain about the time involved. I complain about putting on goggles, washing off chlorine, and drying out swimsuits. I get hung up on the details. I don’t prioritize play.

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As I found myself in the pool this week, paying attention to sensations in my back, hips, and legs, I kept repeating: “I flow freely with life. I flow freely with life. I flow freely with life.”

I felt myself floating. Flying. Flowing. And I laughed when I could see that acute pain had gotten me to the exact place where I’ve known play, where I experience play, and where I prioritize play.

Apparently, I had chosen to “play hard”—to wait for pain to motivate action—instead of “playing easy” and choosing joy. It took a serious problem to get me into the pool. What if I actually allowed myself to act on affirmations and intentions even when they conflict with productivity or ideas of what I “should” do? What if I resolved not to “play through the pain,” but to PLAY throughout, alongside, and for the pain?

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Along with violence, there’s so much pain in our shared social world—so much pain in witnessing, internalizing, and participating in injustice. Thinking about swimming, I’m struck by how racism marks this activity and how layers of privilege (race, class, ability, size, sexuality, age) show up here, as in other places.

Like my back pain, this pain has much to teach, including the importance of play. I am reminded that commitments to justice must be JOYFUL—full of potential, vision, and hope. I am reminded, too, that embracing play in a time of pain (a different version of “playing through the pain”) builds stamina, momentum, and even resilience. Lightness, wonder, and awe are qualities that support the seriousness of attempting to live for justice.

Going forward, I embrace PLAY. Not to ignore pain, but to recognize and heal it. To heal myself so that I can show up more fully, more vulnerable, and more true.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Attending to Anger” or “Potato & Kale Casserole (vegan + gluten-free): Finding Comfort in the Growth Zone.” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!