by Dante Zappala

Ten minutes into an hour-long run, I was bent over and wheezing. I hadn’t been running hard at all. In fact, I was going as slow as I could. But I had spent those ten minutes grunting and grimacing nonetheless.

The day before, atop the waterslide at the Flourtown Swim Club, I slipped and smashed my ribs on the fiberglass. Embarrassed, I convinced myself it wasn’t a big deal and proceeded down the slide. Only later, when I was jogging, did I realize that I’d bruised my ribs.

This was strike two in a week of unfortunate incidents. A few days prior, I was dragging my feet through Carpenter’s woods and took a spill, leaving a nice trail of blood and flesh on the protruding rocks.

Really, there is no harm in running with bruised ribs or torn skin; it just flat out hurts. I thought about stopping, about turning around and walking home. But I’ve always felt that quitting once lays the groundwork for quitting again.

I tried to look at the positive side. Running while every step put me on the verge of tears was a way to build my pain tolerance, a necessary component of racing the marathon. I had the further affirmation that after about 30 minutes, my body had had enough and released its own pain killers, turning the sharp stabs into dull punches.

This lasted for days. The nights were the worst. Any shifting in bed required great effort and will. It seems counterintuitive to do something you know will hurt you. Our senses and our instincts are built around making choices that promote survival, not self-destruction.

Yet we ascribe a high value to suffering. It is the cornerstone of both religion and litigation. Pain is recognized and remedied. We might be healed, saved, compensated or avenged as a reward for what we have endured. Suffering is often a catalyst for change.

Despite the issue with my ribs, I was able to climb into the top bunk with my little guy and read him a few chapters of his Magic Tree House book. After he fell asleep, I moved down below to have one of those awkward dad/son talks.

My oldest has been indulging in cynicism recently. It could be a phase he’s in. It could be some of the things going on around him. Whatever is causing it, I wanted to disabuse him of the idea that he should act miserably. We have choices, I told him. And that is an opportunity most people don’t have. Our circumstances allow us to decide how we act in our lives. We have freedom and relative privilege.

I doubt he understood what I was trying to tell him. He sensed the rhythm of the conversation more than the content. He knew when it was about to be over and picked up his book, his signal to be left alone.

I appreciate that he needs and takes that space. He is defining a world all his own. But absent from that world is any suffering, any obstacle of note. Is it possible that I’m shortchanging him by making his life too easy?

Or maybe I am wrong. He’s private. He could be contemplating any number of dilemmas and I wouldn’t know. I can try to remember what I thought at that age. I think I was overwhelmed trying to intellectualize life and death. I certainly felt some indescribable tension with my father.

I was raised with a core sense of social justice. We marched on Washington. We camped out in front of Arlen Specter’s house to protest his support for Central American dictators. I was once tasked with putting fake warning labels on war toys at department stores that read “This toy is hazardous to your health.” We had a good time doing it but it was downright illegal. I’m just not brave enough to put my kids up to the same thing.

I was, in a word, indoctrinated. And I still mostly believe in what I was raised to believe. Yet I vowed not to indoctrinate my kids. I want them to figure it out on their own.

The fallacy here is that in the absence of setting a strong direction, they will be indoctrinated with something. Someone, some ideas, or some combination of that will fill the void. With that realization, I find myself fighting back but I’m notably starting with a deficit in both position and strategy.

I tell them stories about my runs. I show them the scrapes. I don’t add anything – no hints that there is a moral or a lesson. I went to church as a kid. At that age, sermons can be boring.

My oldest noticed that a toenail on my left foot had turned black. He asked me how it happened. I told him that I don’t really know but then I showed him my other foot where the same toenail had also turned black. They match, I told him.

He liked that that notion. He understood what I wanted to say; that injury and scars and pain are a part of the game. They can be recognized and overcome or they can just be dismissed and ignored. And all it took was a little humor. Maybe suffering can wait a bit longer.