People watch the moon rise over the Bay of Bengal...

People watch the moon rise over the Bay of Bengal in Chennai, India, during a total lunar eclipse on Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2014. Credit: AP / Arun Sankar K

Three years ago, I was offered a prestigious social development fellowship in Chennai, southern India, to enable the delivery of health, livelihood and financial services to remote parts of the country through an innovative social business.

Although I had traveled and worked in Latin America and Africa, I realized Chennai was going to be my most challenging professional experience.

My daily commute was an intense trek through monsoon rain and mud, followed by a mobbed train ride that boosted the 105-degree temperature to 120. At the office, most of my colleagues didn't understand my accent -- and many didn't like my outspokenness. We worked 12-hour days with flickering electricity and constrained resources. After work, I often went home to a broken toilet or refrigerator that took weeks to get fixed, and not without paying a bribe to the local handyman.

To make matters worse, I was hit by a car shortly after I arrived in Chennai. The doctors at the hospital told me that my spine was cracked, and that I probably would not walk normally again. Days of treacherous pain were accompanied by the mental agony that I would never fully recover, and the loneliness of being in a strange country.

By the time I was released from the hospital, I had hit rock bottom. I stepped outside with my head lowered in sadness, when I saw an old man emerging from the slum across the street. He had no legs, and was dragging himself across the highway with the strength of his arms.

In Chennai, one of the most conservative cities in India, people don't smile when they make eye contact, especially not members of the opposite sex. However, when the old man caught me staring at him as I limped along the side of the road, he flashed a beaming smile. As he turned away, he pointed at my leg as if to say, "I feel you, sister."

I felt invigorated by the chance encounter. This man, whose circumstances were so much more difficult that my own, not only mustered the strength to continue moving every day, but also to smile at and encourage a complete stranger to do the same.

In the following weeks, the pain continued. I longed for just one night of full sleep when I didn't wake up in pain, and for the freedom with which I made decisions before physical limitation was a factor. However, inspired by the legless stranger, I knew that my well-being depended on much more than physical recovery. I had to muster an unyielding resolve to recuperate my spirit in the meantime.

Week after week, I continued to push myself to get better. I learned that true human health is the result of meaningful hardship, not just simple pleasures or an easy life. Each drop of sweat, each tear I cried during those months, crystallized as a feeling of dynamic vitality -- one that could only have been brought to the surface through consistent, strenuous exertions to reclaim my health every day.

My back slowly began to recover. But more important, I found myself much more ready to surmount the many adversities I faced in India with composure.

This optimistic attitude and relentless perseverance enabled me to truly enjoy working in India for the next three years.

A few months ago, my mother, Pat McDonough, called to tell me she was diagnosed with breast cancer. As we spoke, she expressed sadness and anxieties similar to those I experienced during those treacherous days in the hospital. Although cancer is a daunting disease, I now knew that we could alchemize this experience into a tool for personal growth and greater empathy for others. I left India, and came back to Manhasset to help my mother cope with the courage and tenacity I had learned.

I will always be grateful to India for the opportunity to participate in developing its social infrastructure, but more so for the ways it developed my enduring healthy spirit.

Caitlin Marinelli is an India-based writer and social entrepreneur. She is the co-founder of Badal Ja!, which promotes gender justice in Mumbai, and the Academy for Earth Sustainability.


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