Thank you New York Times for featuring the powerful work we are doing with veterans. Thank you NEA for recognizing the meaningful work we do everyday as art therapists.
Resilience. Regardless of whomever won the incredibly contentious US presidential election of 2016, Wednesday, November 9th was going to be a tough day in our nation’s history. Why? The virtual split in this nation, as illustrated in the almost evenly cast votes paints the true picture of a nation divided. This isn’t the first time the US has felt deep divisions, and it won’t be the last. We survived in the past. We grew from our conversations, our civil war, our protests, our disagreements, our errors, and our problems.
Rather than mourning for what we could have been had the election swayed differently, how can we use our creativity and our freedom of speech to continue creating that world we imagined for ourselves? The days following this historic election have been filled with a nation in disbelief, protestors from across the country disagreeing with the outcome, and incidents of hate crimes dotting our landscape. Sadly, this most likely would have happened regardless of which candidate won. According to the election results, it was only a matter of 50,000 or so extra Clinton voters over three of the swing states that might have altered the outcome (that is roughly the size of an average football stadium crowd). Only half of the eligible voters in the US showed up at the polls for this historic election. Where was everyone else? By not voting, they actually voted for THIS.
To the Clinton supporters, I am going to ask you a hard question: Is it possible that a Clinton win might have offered an opportunity for business as usual in your life, because you knew that someone on Capitol Hill was going to bat for you? Is it possible that a Clinton win would have given you a “hall pass” to not really get involved for change, because someone else would be doing that on your behalf?
To the Trump supporters, I am going to ask you a hard question: Is it possible that a Trump win might offer an opportunity for business as usual in your life, because you know that someone on Capitol Hill is going to bat for you? Is it possible that a Trump win will give you a “hall pass” to not really get involved for change, because someone else will be doing that on your behalf?
Unleashing our creativity might seem like a lukewarm solution to the current climate, but creativity might be the best and only way to move forward. How can a person with zero experience in serving in a public office suddenly be elected to become the next leader of the free world? If Donald Trump can do that, what kind of untapped potential might we have to do something, big or small, in our own lives? This paradigm shift is suddenly offering everyone an unusual opportunity to reexamine everything. If we can take the time to see this as an unusual opportunity for mobilizing ourselves and our first amendment rights, we might be able to reverse the climate of hate that brewed over this campaign.
The Oxford English dictionary defines creativity as, “The use of imagination or original ideas to create something.” Apathy will perpetuate the fissure so strongly felt on both sides of the divide. Misguided anger will also perpetuate the problems clearly present in our nation. It is in this swampy, murky space we must recreate something new if we are to shape the nation we want our children to thrive in. The creative process offers us to an opportunity to sublimate our raw emotions into something bigger and better than we might currently be able to imagine. Real solutions and coherent communication can only happen when we engage beyond the “fight, flight or freeze” responses to things happening around us, and tap into the higher part of our brains (the pre frontal cortex or part that separates us from the animal kingdom).
The real thing at stake in this brand new era is our first amendment right of freedom of speech. How will journalists fare in this new climate of a president extremely hostile to negative attention? Will news outlets criticizing Donald Trump be squashed and blacklisted? Should we sit by idly and wait to see what happens? No. This is the time to make your voice heard. How? Express yourself. Reach out to people around you. Decide how you can make your own community a better place. This does not have to be in a political realm. Waiting to see what might unfold is following the same crummy path as the folks who didn’t show up on election day.
As a nation of citizens who have exhibited resilient behavior for 238 years, I am confident that as we awake from the shock and utter surprise of our current situation, we will pull up our bootstraps, dust ourselves off, look around and ask what the heck we can do to create the type of nation we would like to live in. This change must start in our own imaginations, and then materialize through ideas and action. In the words of Viktor Frankl, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” There are about 725 days until midterm elections of 2018. What can you do in that time period to connect to and transform your surroundings?
-Image above is a hand cut paper cut created by this writer, Sherri Jacobs, MS, LMFT, MA, ATR.
The picture to the left is of my nifty new dry erase wall in my art therapy studio. Although I do not use this blog to promote products, this new Sketch Pad paint by Sherwin Williams is worth noting. It is a clear dry erase paint that you can cover any wall with, allowing for giant writing/drawing areas I painted the dark green border with a washable semi gloss paint to give the dry erase area a nice boundary. Having worked as a therapist for years in places with tiny dry erase boards, I decided to expand the potential of my clients’ self-expression, without subjecting them to the dust and sound of chalk and a chalk wall. My goal is for clients to take a photo of the work we do/things they write in place of the papers they take along at the end of their sessions.
This new giant writing/drawing space is a perfect metaphor for how people often limit their potential by dreaming small. After years of working in the trenches of the mental health field, one consistent theme I have observed is people setting flimsy goals that are reachable, but don’t really involve risk taking (risking well), or even taking risks in just contemplating future ideas. The culprits in many of my clients’ lives sadly are often well-meaning teachers or family members who planted lifelong debilitating ideas in people’s heads limiting their value or worth, based on their own limited views of themselves. On occasion, this self-fulfilling prophecy of mediocrity is transmitted through several generations.
What would it cost to dream bigger than you usually do when thinking about short-term or long-term goals? The first answer I usually hear is that thinking bigger is too time consuming, and the stressful day-to-day issues must take precedence. The secret is that if we expand the boundaries of our dreams/goals/plans/future, then getting halfway to that expanded place means you will probably accomplish the initial stuff you hoped to do.
Can you find some paper and start jotting down some dreams/goals plans? Can you get out of your comfort zone and try to write down ones that might sound outrageous or unreachable? A good benchmark for recognizing that you are out of your comfort zone is the sensation that someone might see what you are writing. Feel free to rip up the evidence following this exercise, but can you push yourself even further and share your new and expanded dreams with someone you trust? That is the recipe for dreaming bigger!
John Bowlby, a British psychiatrist of the early 20th century, was hailed as developing an important concept known as attachment theory. After working with institutionalized juvenile delinquents (in the 1930s), he realized that much of their turmoil stemmed from severed relationships with loved ones. The field evolved into studying infant development and how a child’s mind and behavior develop in relation to their “attachments.” Bowlby brought to light the negative effects of early neglect, which leads to a cascade of lifelong problems. Jon Bowlby would probably be amused by the fervor at which the parenting manuals and magazines of the 21st century have continued to discuss attachment parenting. In the past 25 years though, the attachment field has also grown to include the study of attachments between adults. Sound crazy? Current neuroscience studies on this topic are simply astounding. It turns out, that humans really are wired as social creatures. ( http://gillab.ku.edu/pubs.html)
The key to a secure adult attachment? Hang out with someone who makes you feel: Safe, Secure, Soothed and Seen. Chances are if you are feeling some or all of these things, your endocrine system, immune system, mood, and overall well being are enhanced. Dr. Sue Johnson, one of the leading figures in the attachment world, refers to oxytocin as the cuddle hormone. Oxytocin is the hormone most closely associated with secure attachments. Ready to get your oxytocin juices flowing today to combat loneliness or isolation?
Please find some pen and paper and think of someone whom you adore. This might be a romantic partner, a close friend, a family member or even a coworker. Can you write them a letter to share your feelings toward them? Do not use a smart phone or personal device. Please try to write a real letter with a real piece of paper. Can you make yourself a little bit vulnerable in your letter, maybe sharing some emotions? In our world which seems consumed with smart devices, this process of sharing feelings is often neglected. Perhaps this might inspire them to be vulnerable back and share an intimate moment of connecting in a real way. Remember, the goal is to enhance the relationships that help you feel attached and secure. Chances are that you might already have one of these secure relationships, but have not been nourishing it lately. There is a slight risk in that this exercise could backfire if the person you choose to write to does not have mutual feelings toward you, so please take that into consideration when you write your letter. For more information on the topic of adult attachment, I highly recommend Dr. Sue Johnson’s most recent book, Love Sense (http://www.drsuejohnson.com/books/love-sense/)
Right brain, left brain integration is a topic many people are familiar with, but another way to explore brain integration is by thinking about one’s “upstairs” and “downstairs” brain. This idea was coined by Dr. Dan Siegel and Dr. Tina Payne Bryson, co-authors of the book, The Whole Brain Child. This book bridges the amazing advances in neuroscience to the arena of raising children, encouraging readers to help children integrate the different parts of their brain to enhance their well-being.
According to the model, the downstairs brain is made up of the limbic system, amygdala and mid brain. One role of the “downstairs” brain is simply to respond to emergencies, exhibited by the fight or flight behavior found in humans and animals. The upstairs brain is made up of the cerebral cortex and is responsible for the rational thinking, and sound decision making. Much of this part of the brain is still under construction in children, with the prefrontal cortex nearing its completion of development at the shocking age of about 22 years!
Adults also exhibit upstairs and downstairs behavior. If you have ever witnessed an adult engaged in road rage, or rescuing someone from a burning building, this is a person who is using their downstairs brain to react to some type of stimuli perceived as dangerous. When adults deal with conflict in a rational and calm way, this is an example of engaging their upstairs brain to deal with stimuli.
Increasingly, we seem to be living in a time saturated with a lot of “downstairs” brain behavior. Global statistics report that the human race is currently engaged in 41 wars at the moment of this writing. It seems unlikely that many of these conflicts will die down soon, so the best way to bring more dignity to our species is to explore our own “upstairs and downstairs” behavior.
Can you think of a time that you engaged in “downstairs” behavior? Please take a pen and paper and create a comic strip about this incident (stick figures are great if you are not artistically inclined). Please include word balloons to identify the conversation. Once you have drawn this, please go back into the cartoon and write what you should have said to improve the situation or the final outcome of the situation. Most likely, the difference between how you behaved and how you wish you would have behaved might parallel the amount of guilt or shame you feel toward the incident. The good news is that thinking about this behavior can actually improve future conflict so that you will engage your upstairs brain in future conflicts. Can you go back to the person with whom you had a conflict and apologize or make amends? We probably cannot bring peace to the many, many corners of the world engaged in war, but we can start to bring peace to the world one relationship at a time. Happy integrating! Make our species excellent today!
This art therapy blog is based in Overland Park, Kansas. Along with writing this blog, I have spent the past eleven years conducting art therapy groups at Village Shalom Retirement Center. Village Shalom, as many know, is one of the locations of this week’s horrific hate crime which took the lives of three innocent people. Much of the media attention has focused on what took place outside of the building, but I would like to give readers of this blog some insight into what takes place inside of the building. Village Shalom is one of those remarkable places that is truly filled with love. Trite as that might sound, it is the only way to describe the facility. Dedicated employees spend their days, nights and weekends caring for a generation of people who witnessed unspeakable crimes against humanity. Many of these residents fled their countries of origin in search of a better world in the United States, and then devoted their lives to giving back to the country that took them in when other nations closed the doors to their plight. The irony of a hate crime at this particular location, with the victim being a woman whose life was dedicated to serving others, must not go unnoticed.
The depth of the art therapy groups at Village Shalom, as residents face their own mortality and begin to look back on their 20th century lives, is profound. One topic which we cover often is the existential question of living well in spite of the collective upheaval and shocking atrocities many of the residents experienced during the Holocaust. From their vantage point as octogenarians and beyond, the overall message gleaned from this generation is to choose goodness in the world, to prevent the pockets of evil and hatred from flourishing.This type tenacity is one we should all apply to this week’s tragedy.
In keeping with the goals of this art therapy blog, I will present a small art therapy exercise along this theme. This particular art exercise relates to the current exhibit showing in the Epsten Gallery, (a gallery located at Village Shalom) called, Looking at After: Four Contemporary Artists Reflect on Legacy l A Creative Spark: The Art of Anna Ilona Gondos. This beautiful art show includes art by a Holocaust survivor (who happened to be my husband’s grandmother), Anna Ilona Gondos. As an inmate in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1944, Anna spent her days teaching art classes to children in the camp, using sticks and dirt. The creativity, strength and courage to exhibit this type of hope in such despicable conditions illustrates the ultimate form of resilience. Another piece in the art show is by local artist, Tanya Hartman. In a series of eight giant panels, she writes the line, “What was beautiful today?” followed by something she found beautiful in her day. Her work encapsulates thousands of days of repeating this activity, until she was able to retrain her brain to automatically recognize what was truly beautiful in her day. Tapping into these two ideas, which really boil down to attitude, please find some pen and paper and write the words, “What was beautiful today?” and fill in your answer. Recovering from a trauma such as the one that the Kansas City community experienced this week? Try it for several days, and see how it can alter your attitude toward a positive place.
Did you know that you are part of a system? In our 21st century lives, it is easy to think of ourselves as individuals, and not connected to our circles of people in any way. Isn’t that what the 20th century Western world has led us to believe? Me, Me, Me, and Me. This line of thinking does not really parallel the overall trends in human history, nor what biology tells us about how homo sapiens are wired. Even in the mental health field, the trend over time has been to pathologize the individual, and remove them from their “system” to make them better. As a veteran employee of the in-patient psych world, I can attest here to the high recidivism rates when adhering to this line of thinking.
Let’s think about your system. Please find some paper and a writing utensil and spend a few minutes creating a family portrait. “Family” is a loose term which might mean your family of origin, the current people with whom you reside or even your workmates. Rather than drawing actual people, faces or stick figures, please draw cogs (like the image in this blog entry) to represent each person in your family. As you assign a cog for each person, please think of how much power or presence they have within the system, and represent this power (or lack of power) with the size of their cog. Think of other emotions or behavior exhibited within the family. Can you stretch your imagination to represent this in the cog you draw for that person? Are the cogs close together and humming along nicely? Are any of the teeth broken, causing the entire system to be shut down? Could you change or fix the system if something is not working? Can you recognize a problem being caused or solved by the entire system working together? If you were to draw separate images to represent your family of origin and your current family as cogs, do you see any patterns that have been repeated?
The bottom line is that we create each other. This simple art exercise might bring up some powerful feelings or insight into your current dynamics. Investigating family dynamics as a system can be an enlightening opportunity to address a family or individual’s problem. The risk sometimes involves investigating how you yourself might be contributing to the problem. If you find that you have a visceral experience to this art exercise, please do yourself a favor and track down a local art therapist or marriage and family therapist to further explore your raw feelings.