Last month, I wasn’t doing so hot with this chronic pain thing. I was poignantly aware of the various levels of chaos that this condition has caused in my life, and I was having a hard time staying positive. Among other things, my Jewish multicultural work was demanding regular airline travel, and airports bring into my life all kinds of complications that I don’t have to face when I avoid the masses.
So there I was, sitting in the strategically-acquired aisle seat of an airplane, waiting for takeoff, reflecting on how hard basic things were for me. Why, I wondered, was I having such a difficult time coping?
A couple of years before, I’d been enthusiastically engaged in the magic and mystery of energy healing. It had seemed relatively easy for me to progress in my healing back then. But more recently, I’d been in a stretch where it was tough to access that part of myself.
As we began take-off, I was lost in my thoughts, when the young woman next to me motioned the sign of a cross in front of her body. I had just done my own Jewish injunctions for a safe flight, so I was touched. There was also something about this woman that made me want to speak to her. Something about her seemed magical and full of life.
So I turned to her and expressed my appreciation of her prayers, adding with a laugh, “Between my G-d and your G-d, we’re definitely getting there safely!”
After discussing religion for a while, we moved on to an inspirational conversation about this woman’s career providing food to the homeless and hungry. She was adamant about the issue of human dignity. “Why shouldn’t beggars be choosers?” she asserted. “The hungry and homeless have as much right to healthy, nutritious food as everyone else.”
She shared with me how she has developed the habit of asking for a portion of her food to be put in a take-out container, as soon as she orders a meal at a restaurant. “They give such big portions, I know I won’t eat all of it,” she explained.
“So why should I wait until I’ve stuck my fork all over the food? I wouldn’t want to eat someone else’s leftovers with their germs all over it. All the more so, why should someone who is suffering from homelessness and hunger? Why not give them something that is just as nice as what I’ve eaten?”
I was inspired to do the same in the future.
This reflection moved me to share the story of how, during college, the kosher dining hall kept throwing away perfectly good, untouched food from the Sabbath meal, while there were homeless people lining the streets just outside. When I tried to take food out to the homeless, school staff stopped me and said it was against the rules; because if any of the food were to go bad, the school could be sued. (As if a homeless person would have access to a lawyer.)
For the next four years, I snuck large aluminum containers of food out to the homeless people every Sabbath — hiding the containers under my coat, and slipping in and out of the dining hall, undetected. Then, during my last year of college, I put into action my theory that by stating something as if it is already reality, it indeed becomes so — especially if you can mobilize a mass of people behind you.
It was the holiday of Simhath Torah, and Jewish students from the whole eastern seaboard were visiting my school, known as the Jewish party capital of the Ivy League. I stood up in front a sea of guests in the dining hall, got everyone’s attention, and proclaimed:
“After the meal, we always take the unused food out to the homeless people. So please help put all of the remaining food in the aluminum containers, then we’ll go down the street and hand it out.” The staff, I reasoned, would be overwhelmed by the swarm of people and wouldn’t be able to stop us.
Indeed, that holiday, hundreds of people helped me distribute massive amounts of food.
The next Sabbath, a gaggle of the regulars in the kosher dining hall joined me in preparing trays. As I hurriedly piled chicken, salad, pasta, and other food into a large aluminum container — as per my usual routine — my friend Nina, who was standing next to me, turned and scolded me. “Loolwa, that’s disgusting!” she said. “You don’t just dump food into a container. You arrange it nicely.”
I looked at Nina, stunned. On the one hand, I wanted to slap her. I had been single-handedly preparing and carrying out heavy trays of food for years — walking as far as six New York blocks, only to return to the dining hall and bring out another tray, until all the food had been distributed. I had done it on cold, snowy nights and days. I had done it when I was exhausted and just wanted to go back to my room and sleep. I had dedicated hours of my time every weekend.
Where was she all those years, helping me arrange things nicely? I mean, who the hell was she to give me that attitude? On the other hand, I was delighted. I suddenly realized I was no longer working alone. There was suddenly the luxury of arranging trays beautifully — which, yes, was definitely preferable.
For the rest of my senior year, everyone took out the trays as a group. And I made mine look pretty.
When I came back to visit the school, years after I had graduated, the rabbi stood up at the end of the Sabbath meal and made an announcement: “It’s a tradition at Columbia to pack the unused food and take it out to the homeless people. So please help us prepare all the trays.” I smiled.
“Do you realize how many people you impacted?” my neighbor on the flight asked. “Every time you brought out a tray, and for years after you left the school, someone didn’t go hungry for at least one day.” Actually, I hadn’t thought about it quite like that. I don’t know, homelessness and hunger seem so overwhelmingly huge. Similarly, this woman had earlier on expressed that she didn’t feel she was doing enough for the cause, despite dedicating her life to it.
But seeing how this woman already had inspired me personally, and knowing how her work must have impacted others, I mused about how each little action can be like a pebble in the water, with a ripple effect that goes on and on. Regardless of the cause — ending hunger, overcoming pain — what’s important is what we do accomplish, every small, little, seemingly insignificant step we take.
As the conversation continued, we indeed talked about chronic pain — among other things, about my sometimes-rocky journey through healing. The woman shared the story of a very difficult time in her life, when she didn’t feel the will to continue living. Her sister then reminded her to practice gratitude: “Go outside, smell a flower, and be grateful for its existence,” her sister had instructed. “Notice that you have a roof over your head, and be grateful for that too.”
I felt my spirits lifting as we talked. This woman was reflecting back to me the fundamental principle of Dancing with Pain®: Put my attention on what I have and what I can do, and fill up that space with love, joy, and gratitude.
From time to time, I meet exactly the right person who says exactly the right thing at exactly the right time. I think of that person as my angel. I shared with this woman that she was my angel for the day. That in turn touched her deeply: “Nobody has ever said that to me before,” she revealed with emotion.
I keep coming back to the realization that success and happiness are not about a fully functional body or an easy life. They are about making the most of our lot and being grateful for each little gift we have. It is just so challenging at times to stay focused on the positive. Pain can feel like a wrecking ball bearing down, again and again. But perhaps by returning to a place of gratitude, every time that wrecking ball hits, we can keep rising up from the rubble.