Playing hurt is used to describe an athlete who continues to play even though he or she is injured. It also describes a necessary life skill that we all need to develop—sometimes we must continue to function, despite pain and adversity. Playing hurt is not optimal and it can’t be sustained for long, but sometimes we must. We’ll need to bear down regardless of the discomfort and continue to perform. That’s not denial; it’s courage, control, and fortitude in action.
I can still vividly remember the 1996 Olympics and the favorite U.S. women’s gymnastics team. They needed to be perfect to clinch the gold over the Russians. So, when Kerri Strug, the last member of the U.S. team to vault, fell on her first vault attempt and hurt her ankle, it could have been a disaster. Strug needed to land her second vault perfectly if the U.S. was going to clinch the gold. She needed to do it on an ankle with a third-degree lateral sprain and tendon damage. She limped to the runway and on one foot, stuck the landing, and earned a score good enough to win the gold for the U.S.
The NBA’s ultimate story of playing through pain happened in the 1970 NBA Finals New York Knicks center Willis Reed, hobbled by a severe thigh injury, limped out for Game 7, against the Los Angeles Lakers. That moment has become so epic that one might think Reed dropped 50 points and 20 rebounds that night. However, his main impact was simply showing up, scoring the Knicks’ first two baskets on his first two shot attempts, and containing arguably the greatest offensive force in the game, Wilt Chamberlain to a 2-for-9 performance. The Knicks rode that energy to claim their first world championship.
Another great story out of the music industry is from January 1975. American jazz pianist, Keith Jarrett, performed a solo masterpiece that is considered a highlight of his career. For his concert in Koln, Germany, a specific concert grand piano was supposed to be provided but instead a badly out of tune, horrible condition ‘rehearsal’ piano was delivered – and the error was discovered too late to be corrected. Jarrett’s worst nightmare turned out to be a blessing. Despite the major obstacles, Jarrett’s performance was enthusiastically received and acclaimed. Because of the poor quality of the instrument, Jarrett had to find another way to get the most out of it. By striking the keys harder and adjusting his chords to match the piano’s capabilities, Jarrett created a once in a lifetime performance that remains a class=”=””ic to this day.
Thousands of ironworkers, farmers, ranchers, and workers in other trades understand the plight of playing hurt. Hernia, surgeries, back and knee pains are a part of life. Every morning, to no fanfare, thousands build this nation’s backbone right before our eyes, playing hurt. I have a high school friend whose Dad came home each day after working in a bronze foundry, to sit in his recliner in excruciating pain as he dealt with a sciatica nerve issue. I never gave it the attention nor respect I should have then and now decades later as I am dealing with a similar nerve issue that makes walking a mile painful, I am amazed at what this man did to provide for his family.
COVID-19 has many of us, individually and collectively, playing hurt. We’ve lost loved ones, jobs, and milestone celebrations. Yet we must continue to function and move forward regardless of the pain and hardship. Families and communities have always been wounded. Throughout history, there have always been family dysfunction, unemployment and under-employment, terrorist attacks, diseases, natural disasters, and other difficulties. Sometimes the world may look like it is falling apart. In these times, we must remember that our strength has always manifested on the local level when we come together.
Locally is where America is at its best. Consider “(insert city) Strong” used for the first time in my recollection after the Boston marathon bombing, but since then has become a rallying cry in Nashville, Pittsburgh, El Paso, Houston, Boulder, and more. The phrase is meant to call together the local community when tragedies strike. It inspires action, courage, and resilience.
Playing hurt is what we do for others. Willis Reed and Kerri Strug for their teammates; Keith Garret for his audience as well as the 17-year-old Vera Brandes, then Germany’s youngest concert promoter, who stood to lose money and reputation; workers across the country for their families and neighbors who count on their output; as well as communities for each other to rebound and become stronger.
As I spent time reflecting on this blog, the Carly Simon song, “Haven’t Got Time for the Pain,” came on the radio and I remembered it well from my childhood. An ideal song that highlights our decision to not allow the pain to rob us of moving forward with the opportunity to rediscover happiness.
The Old Testament prophets were God’s spokesmen, but they were often dealing with being hurt. Ezekiel’s wife died on the very day before he was to deliver an important message. Daniel was deported and lived for years in a foreign country as a hostage. Elijah suffered rejection and severe depression. Jeremiah was called “the weeping prophet” because his own people beat him and put him in prison. Then they threw him into a cistern where he had to wait for God to deliver him. The apostle Paul knew what it was like to play hurt as he experienced much suffering and persecution.
Perhaps no Bible character played hurt more than Job. Job had everything — a good family, a good name and plenty of wealth. Then tragedy strikes and Job loses everything: his children, his wealth, his livestock, his crops, his health and even the relationship of his wife and friends. Through it all, Job did not lose his faith and ultimately God blesses Job.
The Church in Thessalonica also experienced playing hurt, possibly even “Thessalonica Strong?”. In Acts 17, Paul caused a riot in Thessalonica. Accused of insurrection against Rome and unable to find Paul, they went after Paul’s friends and the church he was establishing. So, in his second letter to the Thessalonians, St. Paul prays for those who are playing hurt because he knows that it is those who battle through – not those who run away – that will win the prize.
We have many role models in society today when it comes to playing hurt. Job and Paul are great spiritual examples. However, the ultimate act of playing hurt for others is Jesus’s crucifixion on the cross. He endured and suffered agonizing pain for our salvation. We must continue onward with communal strength knowing Christ is within us. We play hurt – for others and to honor Him.