How pain makes us realise we are all connected in spite of our differences, it brings out our artistic and humane best
Pain has no GPS location. It doesn’t belong to one joint of the body, one malady or one human being. It is universal; it is a rainbow that changes its face, its nuance, its tragedy and its infliction as it goes from home to home, from people to people, and across the regions of the world. Pain makes us citizens of a global village without borders, regardless of racial or religious divides. Pain forces us to realise that black, white, brown, beige – whatever colour we might be – we are all connected.
As far back as I can remember, pain has been a part and parcel of life. I hurt when I walked, when I ran, when I played. I didn’t think it was odd. I thought it was normal and meant to be. It wasn’t until many years later when the ache in my joints was so unbearable that I couldn’t sleep at night that I went to the doctor and was told I had rheumatoid arthritis (RA). I’d had RA for a long, long time without knowing it.
Then one day, I wasn’t able to raise my arm above my head. I didn’t think much of it; I assumed it was one more affliction from RA I’d have to live with. I resisted going to the doctor until it became difficult for me to lift a glass of water. That’s when my partner Charlie said, “Enough is enough.”
The doctor ordered an MRI, which showed my shoulder was in a very bad shape. He was shocked that I was still cooking and lifting heavy pots when it should have been difficult for me to lift even a piece of paper. The only option I had to regain the use of my arm was surgery. It was the most painful surgery I could have ever imagined going through – and the most painful recovery. But as long and as miserable an ordeal as it was, at the same time, Tapestry, my restaurant in Greenwich Village, New York City, was flourishing, and that was a happy distraction. I would go there, with a sling on my shoulder, to cook something with my team. Those few moments of being able to teach, inspire, and connect with others made me feel I was still human and of relevance.
Then Tapestry closed before it could even come of age. I had laboured tirelessly to bring my baby into the world, and to see its doors shuttered because of the improvident mindset of others was heartbreaking. But it was a heartache that I had to accept. In 2017, I started to black out and wake up on the floor with a chipped tooth or a concussion, with no memory of how I had fallen. The doctors diagnosed my condition as orthostatic hypotension, where my blood pressure was so low that I would faint. After many falls and seven concussions, I was left with aphasia, poor motor skills, and the loss of sight in my right eye. I couldn’t see anything beyond three feet in front of me with my left eye.
And so again, I was given another kind of pain. I was broken beyond anything I’d experienced before. I had no confidence in myself or my abilities. I felt the world had forgotten me. The doctors had given up and felt they had done what they could. So, my mother and Charlie decided that I needed a sabbatical from life and living as I had known it in America. This meant that apartment living in New York City, life on our farm, any business I was involved in, writing cookbooks, all had to come to a close. I would go to India to heal and give my life a chance to live.
I arrived in India in 2018, barely functional, and slept in my mother’s bed. For hours on end, she cared for me like she would for an infant. I was totally dependent on her.
This kind of pain was new to me. I was used to being up and about and doing things for myself and others. But I discovered something in the midst of this infirmity. I discovered that when I’m hurting the most, that’s when I find myself in the most creative zone.
In a world that I couldn’t see, my iPhone became a dear friend. I started taking photographs more maniacally than I ever had. The images connected me to the world I was part of – and one which I had to again learn to live in. Eventually, I published these images in a book of reflections, Instamatic: A Chef’s Deeper, More Thoughtful Look into Today’s Instaworld (2020).
A few weeks ago, I had surgery on my left shoulder. The aftermath is even more torturous than the first time around because my medical condition doesn’t allow me to take pain medication. And so, here I am suffering from excruciating pain, but once again I’m in that creative zone. Ideas come to me, I have matchless energy to create, to write, to read, to recite. I want to sing 24 hours a day. The more my body torments me, the higher the notes I can capture, the more depth I can bring to them. Some may call it masochistic, but for me, the more I suffer, the more this artistic expression comes fully alive.
When I’m in agony, unable to even cry, when I’m hitting myself in parts of my body where there is no pain to take my mind off of those places where there is throbbing, searing pain – in those moments, in the dark of the night when all others are asleep, I look into the sky and visit friends and family who have passed us by. I’m able to connect with elders and friends, these beautiful people once again. And so, in this deep, dark hour, in the darkest moments of the night sky, I find answers, I find hope, I find relief, I find a little less agony than I had just seconds before. How can I despise pain when I get such beautiful moments of growth, catharsis and connection with life, living and loving?
Pain has been a constant in my life; it has been my best friend, I might have to say. Pain has made me move forward; it has made me look ahead. Pain helps me forgive and forget because I know there are moments on the horizon that will alleviate it. The best moments of life I’ve enjoyed, I’ve enjoyed despite the pain and suffering I live with.
We all experience pain. Cancer, stroke, brain damage, heart attack, epilepsy, paralysis, birth defect, severe burns. There are those who lose a loved one, or are worried about the future; some whose children have left the nest and flown to faraway places. Others have retired from their jobs and wonder “what now”?
There will always be challenges thrown our way. We will be faced with trying uncertainties and what may seem like tediously agonising paths forward. But it is not a moment to cry or feel lost. We must acknowledge the pain, carry on, and keep living mindfully, with our senses wide awake, so that we are taking from each moment the best it can give us, capturing all the opportunities coming our way. Whether it’s accepting a bowl of soup from an up-until-now-unknown neighbour or a new spark of creativity racing through our veins, we choose to believe something good can come from it.
The collegiality of suffering connects us to one another and to the planet in ways we may never think of when we are at the top of our lives, feeling unconquerable, not thinking about the other. But in moments of pain, we have the opportunity to allow ourselves to accept gifts of succour, sustenance and care from those we never thought would provide for us. Pain teaches us to be accepting of grace and, in return, to be graceful in life, living and loving. That’s the exchange, a life lesson, made possible by a compendium of pain, the universality of our existence and acceptance of one another.
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