Freedom, in our culture, can be equated with the freedom of choice. Our demand for choice has resulted in an outbreak of options, in every aspect of life: politically, commercially, and spiritually, that combine to create a tailored lifestyle and identity. From our pick of hundreds of breakfast cereals lining the grocery aisles to declaring which political party with which we align, from scrolling Netflix queues to swiping left or right for our next date, we are swimming in a seemingly infinite pool of options. What happens when a force beyond our personal control takes away this sense of agency? This is the circumstance of a hospital patient, plucked out of a society in which individual expression is paramount and confined to an environment where one offers up their freedoms temporarily for the sake of physical healing. The facilitation of arts in healthcare can reanimate these desires into decisive functions within a meaningful and creative context. There is no substitute for the self-actualizing work of creativity, especially in this setting, and as I work with patients to facilitate their own artistic modes of expression, many of them find the power of decisive creativity, enabling them to transcend their illness.
As I practice as an artist at hospital bedsides, my goal is to provide patients with a simple scenario in which progressively clearer decisions can be made because I believe this aides in restoring a patient’s sense of will. I love the moment when a patient begins to engage in a creative dialogue. This engagement communicates an openness to relate as well as a intention to reclaim an important part of their identity. We can dissect the creative process into a sequence of decisions, and at first it would seem that art draws us into decisions regarding the material itself as we pick a medium with which to work. If music is the medium, perhaps we determine whether a major or a minor key will best frame lyrics. If painting, we decide what color to start with and how to compose it. The longer we stay within the creative process, the more we may draw out meaningful expression from our interior life. When faced with a blank white expanse of paper, thoughts and feelings dictate the things we choose to do with that space. The result is an aesthetic work of art that evokes a sense of accomplishment and well-being. Upon review, art compels thought and conversation as it relates to who we are, enriching personal narrative.
Wading into this process, patients are afforded time to reflect on one simple decision at a time and to find a kind creative pace. The restorative elements of art in the healthcare setting are found in the reflective moments before each artistic action is employed. Every resolution in this process incrementally moves a person closer to their sense of identity. Worry, stress and feelings of boredom are displaced by a safe, comfortable process imbued with the meaning found in human connection. The reanimation of this decisive function carries with it a neutral, third space of emotion. The consequence of color, for instance, is not easily categorized as “good” or “bad”. So a decision to use the color yellow is simply yellow and progress is made on a painting that can be enjoyed in process as much as it is in outcome. Acting upon a creative impulse can excite the mind and body because the act of creation promises something new. Something that wasn’t there before appears because someone put it there, be it a color, a word or a sound. For instance, there is a beautiful feeling when I finish writing a song. I sit back for a moment and smile to myself. I sing it over and over again, slowing it down and speeding it up find the right tempo. I change up phrasing to make sure the words carry the right feeling. Then, after all the tweaking, I feel a warm satisfaction wash over my brain and my perspective on the day becomes lighter and more adaptable. It’s the purest form of self-care that I practice and I’ve seen similar effects in hundreds of patients in our hospital every day.
The beauty of artistic interventions in a hospital room is inherent in the unexpected nature of the idea itself. The pleasant surprise of artful human connection set against the stark, sterile anxiety of illness presents one in a series of gentle resolutions a patient can make to reintegrate the mind with a positive experience. The effects of these resolutions often reach far beyond a hospital stay, informing the life that awaits a person when it’s time to rehabilitate at home. I met a man who, when I played songs for him in his hospital room, remembered how much he used to love playing his guitar and resolved to pick it back up when he got home. He said the epiphany may have never occurred had there not been a hospital music experience. It was the music lifting him out of a critical moment that informed his decision. He thanked me and then said, “I had forgotten what music can do for me. Now I can go back home and do it for others.” There are many stories like this one and they all begin with an invitation to reconnect a patient with their individual expression in a setting where they least expected to find the opportunity. I see the tiny decisions, the quiet epiphanies and the first brushstrokes. I see people moving and becoming who they are against staggering odds, redefining what it is to be free.