A Broken Scale

A broken scale may or may not tell you something you want to know. It may say you’re doing ok. It may tell you you’re good enough. Or it might say you don’t measure up. Either way, it’s lying to you, and you’re lying to yourself. A broken scale is broken and leads to misleading measurements.

I was in physical therapy for a nasty case of Achilles tendonitis. In fact, the large, fibrous lump on my ankle is still there, still tender to the touch, unmoved and intransigent, but that’s not the point. My PT told me that I could continue to do the things I do (too much) as long as the pain wasn’t more than 3/10. Any more than 3/10, I would need to pull back. Unsurprisingly, I was still doing all my stuff and waiting for the therapy to yield results. My pain level was never more than 3/10.

But my scale was broken.

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This is the thing about suffering, or rather the thing about suffering as a regular practice. It will break your scale. What should be a 3/10 is now a 6/10, because you’re quite used to pain. It has ceased to be a warning sign and is now a welcome sign. You’ve arrived at the place you think you need to be. Once you reach the point of suffering, you have come to believe, that’s where progress is made.

I had to stop.

Unsurprisingly (again), my pain abated. In fact, it may have dropped to just 3/10. The scale is still likely broken, so it’s hard to say with any certainty. Progress is also nebulous. Is less pain equivalent to more healing? I don’t know, and I’m not qualified to judge.

I know there are a lot of you out there who push like this, and I don’t want to send the wrong message. It is good to push your limits. Real progress does require real work. At the same time, I fear your scale may be as defective as mine. For myself I wonder about the downside of the way I measure, where good enough is never really good enough. Is it possible that I can get fitter and faster, but not actually get any better in the larger sense? If all this pain and suffering yields chronic pain and almost zero satisfaction, what am I doing?

It should be noted that ‘good enough’ is an absolute value, a cosmological constant. Deviations from ‘good enough’ should be eyed suspiciously, anomalies in the data that you’re going to need to explain, if only to yourself.

Those of us on the hunt for Type 2 fun might recognize the deal we’ve made with the devil. On the one hand, we’ve been offered the chance to surpass ourselves, and what an intoxicating idea, to prove to yourself that you’re much more than you thought you were. On the other hand, the devil only makes hard bargains, and he’s eager to see you suffer, to collect your soul in the end, once you’ve rent it asunder for him.

When you follow the advice of a broken scale, you will break yourself. This may take the form of depression, low self-esteem, bodily injury, exhaustion, poor diet, poor attitude, low motivation, toxic relationships, and/or chronic unhappiness. This is not the way forward. My suggestion is to find someone who loves you and ask them to look at your scale, to help you recalibrate. Trust them, because they see you better than you do. For them, and for me too, you’re already good enough.

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  1. bart says

    My scale is broken. Not just one scale, but several. I know I’m not on a “sustainable” path these days, but Just Stopping also doesn’t feel like an option. Bills to pay, stress to manage, people to respond to, elections to worry about. Robot, I think you were mostly talking about physical pain/injury due to pushing too hard when “exercising”, but for me, this resonates on so many levels. Especially the last paragraph. 3 out of 9 in the items you listed are strong “Yes”, and 4 out of the 9 were “Sort-Of” for me. Ouch – this is a wake up call for me. Thank you.

    1. Emlyn Lewis says

      Bart – All the work-related stuff just disappeared for me at the beginning of the pandemic. I was broken for a variety of reasons. My best was only just barely adequate.

      And then the world stopped and I gave up, and things are going far, far better now.

      Your results may vary.

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