<strike>How</strike> Does it Hurt?
Long Hauling (6/9)

How Does it Hurt?

When the world is caught in collective pain, it is strange that we don’t know how to talk about it. In this creative and personal pain-scale, Nishant Shah names, heeds, and measures a shared language for holding pain.

Pain, they say, is private. Even if the reasons for it are public. Even if all of us hold it, and it holds us together. One doesn’t show it in polite company––like the neuroses in the head, the epilepsies in the blood, the grief in the marrow. Pain must be kept under wraps. Naming it makes others squirm. Voicing it makes you look weak. Sharing pain with others becomes a confrontation that makes them ponder their mortality and fragility, leading to suffering that they did not sign up for. Like digital mailing lists, pain is an opt-in subscription. 

Pain, they say, is best experienced in isolation. It makes you stronger. And if you survive it, stranger. It builds character. Or at least, a dimension of interest to share with a future first date. Pain, they say, is best left untouched. Unsaid. Pretend that it is unfelt. 

And so pain has no social vocabulary. No collective language of expression. When the world was caught in collective pain––of the dying and the dead, and those who watched them die, the sick and those who feared they might be next, it was strange to realise that we don’t know what to say when we want to talk about pain. On a daily basis we are used to asking people how they are feeling and then expecting interactive niceties. Ok. Good. Better. Not an intensity or a description, just a simple spectrum. A dot on a mental matrix where we can place people on an axis of pain and calculate their responses around it. Pain only seems to have descriptors in pathology and poetry––either the gleam of the steel or the invisible finger running down your back. 

And so pain goes unnamed. Unheeded. People call you brave. They call you strong. They know the effort it takes for you to sit. To stand. To move. To just not br ea kd own. Because breakingdown might mean just more of the same. Strong, Brave. Hero. Behind all those names, there is love, and respect, and care. But mostly there is the desperate hope that you will not describe to them the patterns of pain that stipple the back of your head. They would rather call you a hero––more than human, self-sufficient; in no need of care or support because you are now superhuman––and leave it at that. 

When naming pain becomes impossible, it gets reduced to a scale. They don’t want to know how it hurts, just whether it hurts or not. You are given a colour chart, assigning your pain gradients of green and red, even if the colour you see when you clench your eyes shut, is magenta. Does it hurt, or does it hurt enough, for us to care for you? Name a number. On a scale of 1 to 10, where does your pain measure?


In the doctor’s office, they see flesh peeking out, the skin peeling, the mounds of tenderness and the hollows of hurt that speak volumes through teeth-clenching finger-curling agony. They ask you to name a number. 10. I try to say 10. But the number is too absolute. It is too finite. I try to recite the 10th value of pi and give up. The 10th value of pi is where the maths becomes more painful than the pinpoint of pain that they are trying to assign to a number. This is the concentrated point of pain where every nerve ending seems fired up, oozing blood when accidentally the fabric of the softest clothing grazes against it. Who would have thought the tiny spot to have so much blood in it?  1en t0 ten10. 10 degree of a pie. Pies. 10 slices to a pie. Pain is a pie. 

9 – 7.5

This is the blossoming pain. It rises like a hydrogen cloud from the depths of the wound, and then irradiates through your skin, making you forget instinctive things like seeing. You blink and nothing happens. The world has receded into a background. You are staring at an out of focus image where shapes and light have all become maps that trace the bloom of pain unfurling its tendrils, lovingly, through your veins. 

You find your eyes shut. It was meant to be a blink. It became an eyesWIDEshut moment. One of those blasts of pain where you are scared of opening eyes. Till the eyes are closed, you can pretend it is not real. Denial is an interesting, if not effective antidote. 

You think of bromeliad flowers. 3 petals, 3 sepals surrounding 6 stamens and 1 stigma.  A many headed ecosystem that is home for frogs. You wonder if the flower feels the pain of the frog swimming in its tubes. You wonder if the frogs feel the pain of a flower closing in on them. You wonder if you are holding the pain, or the pain is holding you. If pain is a flower, do you lean into its fiery beauty? Do you grieve when it withers and falls off the stem of your spine held in tense inflexibility? What happens to pain deferred? Does it become a dream?

7.4 – 7

The shrinking pain is like a reverse orgasm. It slowly rolls in from the edges, makes its way, like long nails on fingers caressing you with malintention, receding to a point of origin. This is how the big bang would feel like backwards. It seems to take eons to wave across the body and make its way to an abstract four-dimensional point made out of skin, flesh, nerves, and absofuckinglute humanness. You can feel its fractals unfold, till it starts clumping, like a fist closing. 

As it shrinks, the intensity increases, and you can feel the generations of painlets coming together, dissolving into themselves in an osmotic orgy, till they become one concentrated point that screams in tongues and voices so loud that you can no longer speak. Or even cry. You sit there, paralysed with it, feeling it eat at you. 

Then a voice comes to you. BREATHE. 

You breathe, but you are breathing wrong. Lifetimes of habits disrupted by this precise point of pain where it feels like somebody is drilling into your body with gossamer threads. 

You choke. And in that choking and coughing, as your body pushes for survival, you taste the food you ate last night and distract yourself thinking of what you ate, distracting yourself from the pain that is eating you. 

< 7 

You want to believe that pain is biology. But it is chemistry and physics and quantum mechanics all conspiring to turn your body into a receptacle of mortality. It takes you to the edge of the extended universe, where you hope you have put enough light years between you and that point of pain. But no avail. 

Like unmerciful gravity, like stalking ex-lovers, and suspicious rashes, it catches up, engulfs you, drags you down from the outer edges of the known body, and lovingly envelopes you into the cocoon it has built for you. 

Thus, must an electron feel, when trapped inside a nuclear fusion equation, collapsing into itself, becoming nothing but that searing moment of energy and light. So does pain grab you. You do not have pain. You become pain. 

Everything else dissolves, and like light, you shoot through the darkness of your body, hitting the walls of your bones, and scattering in concentric patterns of hurt and relief, splitting you into two. 

Pain refracts and there comes a moment when, from the correct angle, the blinding white light breaks up in a rainbow of colours. 

5.9 – 4 

Over time and the distance of the endless miles within your body, pain becomes habit. It is present, but it is lighter than a whisper, slighter than an eyelash, and sits coiled like a recessive gene waiting to be activated without warning. 

You live with it everyday, and it becomes bearable because there is a promise that it shall pass. You count, breathe, measuring time in twinges and pangs, looking forward to the day when this shall be behind. Pain becomes the white noise that accompanies the restlessness of sleep; an insignificant backdrop to that pointed reminder that you are alive; that despite the very mortal pain you want to continue and fight for that last breath that does not carry the undertones of a gasp. 

Pain has a pulse that you can feel in your wrists. It has a beat, even as it beats you––there is a rhythm in the knocking. Pain has a sound, and sometimes only you can hear it, like the sound of your heart in your ears after a long swim underwater. Pain is not a symphony. It is more a playlist. And sometimes there will be auto-tune, wearing you down into resignation. 

4 – 2

When pain leaves, it sloughs without fanfare. You realise one day, that what you feel is not its unguent presence but the smegma of its once-being. You hesitantly touch your own body, grossed out by the marks of hands that have touched, probed, prodded, 

What it has taken away with it, though, is dignity, replacing it with 144 indecipherable marks that delineate the grossness of your body, which has been probed, parted, poked, pocked, pushed, prodded, pressed, puckered, pinched, plugged, pricked, punctured, and penetrated, with your consent but without your agreement. 

Pain leaves in the shape of the letter P. It feels like a straight line, but around the head, is a big pustule of mockery, that makes choices for you, and informs your decisions. It leaves, but leaves you uncertain, perched on a precipice of uncertainty. In the humdrum of being awake, you don’t quite notice it, but when you are asleep, especially when you are asleep, one night you shift, gingerly… your body stiffens at the thought of what pain that movement might have awoken. 

You wait for the press of pain to compress your spine, and when nothing happens, you scream with relief, waking at 3 a.m., your face covered in sweat, your mouth open, looking like the emoji you use in your group chats 😛


You can’t witness the pain leaving, but like character arcs in a B-grade murder mystery, pain keeps on coming back in flashbacks. One day, you wake up, and you feel its emptiness. It isn’t just an absence. It is a loss. The days when it has nestled in your body, finding the corners in the hollows of your innards, you had to learn how to cope with it. ‘You can’t beat it. It is not going away. You will have to find a way of letting it rest in you’. And you do that. Like nightmares that refuse to go, like the scars that live on your skin, like words that you imagine scrawling on mirrors, like the memories of people gone, you find a way of making home with it. 

So when it disappears, your body, doing its regular survey of the internal landscape, notices the pain gone and rings an alarm. The klaxon of loss wakes you up. Eyes flicker. You feel a profound emptiness. You wonder what has gone wrong. You frantically look around you, only realise that in its wake, your body is rearranging itself, like how your ribs expand and your abdomen swells when you step out of a steel-reinforced corset. The shoulders, drawn in perpetual tension slowly drop their angular vigil. The back that has been strained in anxious anticipation of the next shiver, learns to decompress. You feel sweat on your back, as if your spine is crying. The twisted bundle of nerves that your legs have become trying to tread pain with every movement––the muscles that have realised how much they move even when all you are doing is sitting and have tensed up from the inertia of being completely still––all relax. 

You feel something flow through your body. A counterbalance to the waves of pain that have become intimately familiar. You struggle to give it a name. You falter. You realise that much as you did not have a language to talk about pain, you have an even lesser vocabulary to talk of its absence. A negative presence. 

After days of confinement that have felt like eons, as weights of ancestors bear you down––in pain you inherit the memories of generations––when you finally step out of your house, your skin, your head, you feel the sun on your neck, and the wind rubbing against your nose, you have an epiphany. You know what that feeling is. It is unexpected. It has nothing to do with the pain or its absence. It is about the people who you thought couldn’t see, couldn’t feel, couldn’t possibly know. You see them as the anchors that held you in place with care; performing their own penance of bearing witness in silence, because what you needed was the healing that came with silent care. 

The presence of pain is intense suffering. Its absence is gratitude. And there is nothing more hopeful, and immortal, and fiercely human. 

Filed Under: Articles & Essays

Text by

Dr. Nishant Shah is Director of Research & Outreach and Professor of Aesthetics and Culture of Technologies at ArtEZ University of the Arts in The Netherlands and Faculty Associate (2020-21) at the Berkman Klein Centre for Internet & Society, Harvard University.

Watercolours by

Pato Hebert is an artist, educator and cultural worker based in New York and Los Angeles. His work explores the aesthetics, ethics and poetics of interconnectedness.

Signup for the ArtsEverywhere newsletter

icon-angle icon-bars icon-times