I invited a guest to write this week’s post – Sara Baker.
Sara is a novelist, short story writer and dramatist. Her works have been published in a number of publications. Her screenplay, ‘Looking for Sylvia’, was a winner in the Atlanta Film and Video Contest; her screenplay, ‘One of Us’, was a semifinalist in the Cinestory 1997 Screenwriting Contest. She has written three books – 2 novels (Shadow Dance and Horography), and a collection of short fiction titled ‘No Part of the Body is Not Sacred.’ Sara holds a Masters degree from Boston College. She has taught English at the University of Georgia, Georgia Institute of Technology, and Piedmont College. In addition, she has been a Georgia Artist in the schools and conducted workshops throughout the state. Sara created the Woven Dialog Workshops, writing workshops that aid in facilitating the healing process at Loran Smith Center for Cancer Support in Athnes, Georgia.
And now, here’s Sara…
Returning to the Roots of Western Medicine
The arts in healthcare are often regarded as a nice but certainly not essential component of patient care, just as the arts in the broader American culture are often considered a valuable but inessential asset. Certainly, they are not considered essential to our well-being. We are a pragmatic nation, proud of our technological prowess. We are more comfortable with the Newtonian idea of the body as a machine to be fixed than as the physical expression of a soul.
Yet the very roots of Western medicine are sunk deeply in a tradition which proceeded from a very different premise. In ancient Greece, the ill would go to healing temples, or temenos, which means a piece of land cut off or set apart and dedicated for sacred purposes. The temples dedicated to healing were call asclepieia, after the god of healing, Asclepius. The sick would come and bathe in healing waters and prepare themselves for a sacred dream, which they would then report to a priest, who would prescribe a cure. The earliest of these temples date from 420 BC, and both Hippocrates and Galen trained in asclepieia, and Hippocrates traced his ancestry to Asclepius.
What the ancient Greeks understood and what Hippocrates espoused, was that a person carried within themselves the resources to help direct their healing. They understood that the unconscious often held the key to healing and allowed a time and place for that knowledge to arise.
It has been said that if you listen well to a patient, he will give you the key to what is wrong with him. Yet in our modern medical environments, there is little time for truly listening. And the language of medicine is one that often reduces the ill person to a body or a pathology, rather than addresses the emotional and spiritual experience of the person undergoing the experience of illness. (see Arthur Frank, At the Will of the Body). Chaplains and social workers, those assigned to “deal with” these issues, are often overburdened. Patients themselves often feel as if they are somehow wrong to have feelings of despair, disempowerment, grief, and stress and lack the language to acknowledge or access feelings which may actually, by their lack of expression, be blocking their healing process.
By providing arts experiences in hospital settings, however, we are providing our own temenos. Here, in the safe space set apart from other concerns, patients are invited to have a healing, although waking, dream. They are able to find the symbolic language to express the crisis they are experiencing, and also, through the process of art, to seek new, imaginative ways to go forward. Thomas Moore, author of Dark Nights of the Soul, talks about the “unfolding self,” the part of us that is always evolving and going through deep transformations. “The unfolding self hungers for symbols and language to understand and mark the transitions it is going through.” (pg. 35) Through the process of creating art, the patient-artist both creates the distance necessary to reflect on his/her experience and honors the transformative process that is always part of the experience of illness.
In many respects, then, incorporating art into the healthcare setting is not something new, but something very old. It is an acknowledgement that healing is not only about curing physical ills, but also about giving patients the tools to cope with the spiritual and emotional dimensions of illness. The science supporting the physical and emotional benefits of arts intervention is growing exponentially (see Marti’s excellent “The Science Supporting Creativity in Healthcare). Medicine has always been a blending of art-intuition, perception, creativity-and science-knowledge, skill, experience. While the current structure of our medical system so often mitigates against providing healing environments that address the whole person, my experience has been that all those involved in healthcare want such environments. By incorporating the arts as healing modalities, hospitals are returning to the roots of Western medicine. ~sara baker.