Prescription for Health: Empathetic Entry Into the Stories of Others
By Eric Booth

“When is the last time you listened to the stories of others?”
— Native American Medicine Man to a patient

The empathetic entry into the stories of others is an essential of health. That assertion may sound new age-y, but I believe it is a truth of spiritual health so real that it widely and inexorably manifests in physical health or travail.

The arts have a crucial role to play in the physical health of a culture. The etymology of the word culture reminds us of this ancient truth—“culture” originally meant the medium in which you grow, like agriculture, closer to the action in the petri dish you used in biology class than in the opera house. The arts—given a broad definition I will suggest later—are the most effective way, our essentially human way, of telling our most important stories. Experiencing a deep connection to others through those stories—as a communicating artist oneself, or connecting to an originating or interpreting artist as an audience, and to other audience members who are also entering it—activates the deepest sense of belonging, a full membership in a species that seeks to survive together. Eliminating the sense of isolation and separation from other humans, on the subconscious level where it abides, reduces the stress of the frightened animal, the quiet despair in modern life. This allows for the sense of general OKness and connection to the true order of things to become the foundation upon which daily consciousness functions. Of course this doesn't mean that we will live blissful lives devoid of stress and conflict if we have fully arts-engaged lives, or that everyone who has a big experience of Carmen becomes a valuable contributor to society. Access to the watertable of humanness that the arts provide slakes the thirsts that drive much of our social madness. The connection to others through the arts adds essential nutrients to the medium in which we all grow.

Mind you, the medicine man’s remedy requires really listening, not just exposure to the stories of others—listening in the deep sense of that word, which includes an empathetic heart. You can’t just sit patiently through Cousin Larry’s story of a fishing trip and expect a boost to your inner health; you have to open to the fullness of the story and the teller, even if it’s only a modest tale of a fishing trip. The health lies in the oxygen of empathy, in the opening to the full humanness of Larry as revealed through the story. And some stories are more nutritious than others.

This is where the arts become essential to human health. It is why the arts have held such a central place in human cultures for 350,000 years, why they have been essential to the evolution of every human culture that has thrived on earth. The stories told in the arts are richer and more effectively wrought than Larry’s fishing trip. They are designed with the best intelligence humans can muster to accomplish the goals of individual development and social cohesion. The arts tell the stories of human experience in an endless profusion of ways, and they ingeniously invite others to hear to the stories, to enter them and be connected.

Please note that I use a large definition of art that is not organized around specific objects certified as artworks, but rather a definition that centers on qualities of experience. While this issue of defining art is the subject of another body of writing, the broad definition that underlies this essay embraces all artistic media as well as any medium into which people pour their fully engaged creative work. There is a reason that people referred to the art of bricklaying and the medical arts in my lifetime (even though less so today); the reason is that the large definition of art includes our fullest expressions in any medium, and it is possible to enter into the creative accomplishments wrought by others in any medium and hear their story. There are masterworks in every medium, and they all reward curious entry, even though media like 12-tone musical composition and molecular biophysics are eloquent to a narrow audience. We all make minorworks in the many ways we express ourselves and share the stories of our lives. The capacity to enter others’ everyday works of art reward us with the salutary discovery of ourselves in vibrant connectedness to those great and small who comprise our community.

Medical scientists increasingly detail the physiological link between human connectedness and positive health outcomes. Research studies that confirm the linkage are no longer news. In my layman’s view, the release from the spiritual stress of disconnectedness, the affirmation of belonging with others who genuinely care, the participation in some network larger than ourselves, provide the health benefits. I saw it clearly when teenage AIDS patients took a workshop with teaching artists from Carnegie Hall, in which, over time, they wrote songs about their lives. When these songs were performed by a band of six top rank musicians who took extensive instruction from the kids, one audience member was a woman in her twenties who had consistently refused to take her AIDS medications, no matter arguments, or inducements the health care professionals could offer. After hearing the songs, for the first time, she asked for her meds and committed to taking them regularly from then on. When asked what it was about the young people’s songs that made her change her mind, she responded that she felt their courage and knew she too could survive.

Great works of art are told in ways that invite connection on multiple levels of meaning and reward repeated listening over time, in a way that Larry’s fishing story doesn’t. The invitations and the stories of the arts are endless. I should add that not all stories in the arts are told in verbal, narrative language of Larry’s or Herman Melville’s tales. Artistic media like instrumental music, abstract art, and some dance tell their stories in symbolic language which “tells” stories in different ways than words allow. Although such non-literal accounts of human experience may not resemble nor be told in the sequential, narrative form we associate with the word “story,” they still seek and often accomplish the same essential connecting. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony brings us together in ways at least as effective as any verbal account.

The potential for artworks to provide their salutary impact requires each individual’s choice to engage fully and her capacity to “listen” deeply. A research study by Harvard Project Zero called “The Qualities of Quality” determined that by far the greatest influence on the quality of an arts learning experience in a classroom is the investment of the individual learner and the social dynamic that influences that individual’s willingness. In the current U.S. culture, such yearning and listening skills are increasingly scarce or absent. This abiding human need now requires more mediation, and more support than it ever did before, to bring people into full health.

Current U.S. culture makes this kind of listening even harder, which deficit accounts for much of the spiritual stress of our times. In my mere sixty years of life, including forty years noticing people’s capacity to enter into the stories that the arts (in their broadest definition) present, I have noticed that it has become harder for people to enter empathetically, deeply, into the worlds of artworks. One might theorize about the reasons for this trend—more multi-tasking, changes in childrearing and youth recreation, commercial influences, a literal-minded public dialogue, and many more. Certainly, there are many contributing factors, and whatever they may be, we live within the reality of diminished capacity to fully enter the stories of others. As the poet Adrienne Rich writes, “America is afraid of the experience that leaves a mark.”

Some works of art, and many entertainments, still work well for many people to have a quick anodyne dose of this ancient medicine, but the prescription-strength, rich, deep, complex artworks that hold much humanness, have become harder for people to access. Such deep stories do not lend themselves well to the speedy, readily-gratifying, anti-reflective preferences of our times. Which is why the entry into rich artworks becomes more important, becomes a spiritual necessity, as an antidote to the cultural toxins we live within. Social justice activists argue, rightly, for equal access to resources and opportunities for the disadvantaged; the access to the health benefits of empathetic entry into the stories of others is diminished for the middle class and affluent as least as much as it is for the struggling sector, where the arts are often vibrantly alive in daily life despite material scarcity. Indeed, I often find empathy more available among the poor than the comfortable. This is a whole-U.S. problem, not a segmented one.

The world’s most extraordinary experiment that I know about in which the arts are used to boost social health is Venezuela’s El Sistema. Over 350,000 of the poorest young people, across the country, participate intensively in after-school orchestra programs, often 20+ hours a week, starting from age two when possible, into late teenage years and sometimes beyond. They grow up in the beauty, the stories, the sonic embrace of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. And every one of these “poor” children I met were rich in joy and empathy, creating healthy generous lives in place of the harsh lives that statistics show most were destined to find. The founder, Jose Antonio Abreu, states it simply, “Spiritual wealth can overcome material poverty.” He has created a national program that proves the claim—by making great music the stories these young people grow up hearing and telling, they succeed in redirecting the trajectory of hundreds of thousands of at-risk young lives. I have been honored to help bring El Sistema practices to the U.S., where they are growing well, giving some of our young people the chance to grow up inside the healthiest human exchange.

Because these empathetic capacities struggle for life across U.S. culture, those who can serve as catalysts to activate our latent connective capacities to the plenitude of stories become essential to the health of individuals and society. These agents-of-connection are not necessarily those who create the great stories, the artists, although the abundance of new and wonderful stories expands the already-bounteous supply of opportunities in a characteristically human way. The supply from the past and ever-expanding profusion of new artworks represent humanity’s greatest wealth.

Nor are these catalysts necessarily the doctor-theorists like me in this essay, nor the medicine man cited above, nor thousands of talk therapists, who point out the necessity of this connection. (I can imagine a spiritual physician prescribing a dose of two Beethoven string quartets and a section of Leaves of Grass before a call in the morning.) Simply pointing out the need to make connections with others doesn’t automatically show people how to do that—indeed, most people can’t listen to a string quartet or read Walt Whitman and empathetically enter its offered medicine. Exposure isn’t enough: you can bring a horse to Monet’s Water Lillies, but you can’t make him drink it in. The vast majority of Americans require help to unlock the treasure chest, which is also the medicine chest.

While many individuals are naturally good at helping others enter worthwhile stories in deep ways, and some teachers and psychotherapists emphasize such approaches powerfully, teaching artists are the group I know who are skilled and dedicated to exactly this challenge. Overlooked and underrespected as they are, teaching artists are our designated catalysts. The field of teaching artistry doesn’t describe itself in this way, and it is a disorganized field, so there are individuals who don’t think of this as their skill, nor is every teaching artist necessarily good at it. But the work of teaching artistry in general, and the extraordinary skills of good practitioners in particular, accomplish this culturally essential goal—they can effectively facilitate people’s empathetic connection to the stories of others. They can restore this fundamental birthright, this essential component of the healthy human.

This makes teaching artists crucial to the health of our society. A number of sectors of society have begun to recognize their value, as they are increasingly hired by arts organizations, health care providers, professional training programs, and in creative aging. Although I wish this trend would accelerate, both in the supply of skilled teaching artists and the breadth of demand for what they can do at their best (clearly supply and demand work together), I envision a goal beyond that strategic level of utility. I believe teaching artists provide a service that is essential to the health of the nation. Every child should have significant early and consistent learning in the deep, empathetic listening that teaching artists are skilled at developing. Once developed as habits of mind, they apply themselves helpfully and heathfully for the rest of life. This capacity should be a leadership requirement of business, public policy, and health care training—and teaching artists should be brought in to shore up the weakness in this leadership capacity. (It could be argued that the actions that caused the recent economic crises—which happened largely within existing laws but outside of human goodness—are the result of empathetic deficit as much as financial malfeasance.) I won’t live to see the fulfillment of this vision, alas, but I have been able to live to see the vision itself—quite invisible two decades ago, and probably unnecessary at the time of my birth.

Allowing myself to dream for a moment, I can see a better country if every professional training program—M.B.A. to D.Ed. to J.D. to conservatory certificate—required empathy development with the efficient guidance of teaching artists. I can envision a healthier economy if candidates for corporate Boards of Directors had to successfully complete a required empathy development program led by teaching artists. I can easily imagine doctors who diagnose more accurately and get better health outcomes if their perception and empathy skills are developed along with their scientific—and there is Harvard Medical School research to prove this. And before taking office, every politician… and before graduating from middle school… you get the idea. Every child that does not get involved in the juvenile justice system saves my state (NY) $210,000 per child per year—I am envisioning serious cost savings for the state and country that invests in the knowledge of teaching artists.

Teaching artists have the creative gift of empathy. They know, intimately and articulately, what it is like for those unfamiliar with the arts to enter artistic experiences. They are the tour guides of artistic process. They design their work in an inventive crucible of remembering what it is like to experience things for the first time and knowing deeply the ways inside the arts. They are natives in the foreign land (for a large majority) of artistic practice, and have developed the skills of customized guided tours that enable almost anyone to take action because they feel they belong. Their work has power because it is authentic; it is a creative act to design such learning journeys, and they bring an artist’s flair and an expert’s true joy. To participate in a teaching artist’s entry into the work of art is to be the artist you are, even if only in a small way. To be the artist you are is to be an active participant in a healthier life, healthier family, healthier culture.

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