When I was in third grade, I sought membership in the club of classmates who had to wear eyeglasses. Rather than a handicap, I perceived the forced use of eyewear as a cool thing. So, a year later, when it turned out I had a condition that required I wear prescription lenses, I reveled in the fact that with my own pair of black horn-rimmed glasses I was granted entry into the club. However, the specialness of that membership lasted less than a year. Then I was stigmatized by the majority of kids who belonged to the non-eyeglass group and was branded “four eyes.”
In yesterday’s New York Times I learned that I am a statistic of a growing new group of chronic pain sufferers. Even if I liked being in clubs that would have me as a member, this is not one of them. Chronic pain is defined as acute pain lasting for more than three months. Often it is a symptom of an underlying condition; sometimes it is the condition. I’ve had acute pain in the past. I’m sure many of you have had the same. Perhaps it was the result of an accident, or probably it is because as wondrous as the human body might be, it was never designed for the tasks or environments it is doing now. Yet even like a high-performance automobile, parts wear out—some are repairable, others are replaceable, and occasionally there is nothing that can be done.
I start with the premise that the worst of my pain can be healed or cured and I usually attempt to work through it. Once I saw a performance where Mikhail Baryshnikov leaped into the air and landed on his foot. It was my first ballet, so I could not understand why the audience let out a collective gasp, particularly since he continued to dance as though nothing was wrong. In fact, he had broken his foot, but continued to push through until the finale. He missed only the curtain call. Everyone was buzzing their concern.
I am no Baryshnikov. I have stenosis, which is caused by plaque building up in the spine, compressing the space that serves as nerve canal. In truth I have not done much exercise to loosen my body or strengthen my muscles from the initial COVID lockdown. And here, I thought, the pandemic meant I did not have to seek out a new venue for such exercise; I blamed my gym as the reason for being sedentary. And after a year I blamed workarounds with my shell of a body. It hurts and is getting worse. Now I panic because I can only work for short spurts before the pain begins to radiate. Panic does not help the situation, either.
So what does pain have to do with design? It determines outcomes, it triggers ideas, it controls behavior. Sometimes chaos—and I call this pain a form of chaos—can trigger a design-minded person to search for a solution. Sometimes it knocks a person into unconsciousness. I’ve authored books and curated exhibitions while suffering dengue fever and pneumonia, and despite not knowing if these conditions would ever go away, I fought through the fog. Currently, I’m pushing, like Sisyphus, the rock of stenosis. If only medicine was more like designing, maybe I’d feel better.