Some years ago I had the privilege of studying with Parker Palmer, a thought leader in the field of spiritual leadership. He is, perhaps, most known for his work in education and teaching. One of the things he said, that has stuck with me to this day, is the need to tie a string between your head and your heart. I see the arts as a powerful way to maintain and tighten that connection. Through art, stories are transmitted. They speak to the heart. They allow us to step into someone else’s reality, and connect us to people whose lived experience is entirely different from our own. Through stories we are able to cross time, place, class, race, ethnicity and culture. We can experience empathy and solidarity. Personal connections, truth, and passion emerge. Community is often developed. Shared values are forged. And, in my experience, these are the forces that can lead to great and profound social change.
We have tried to integrate the arts into our work at the Consumer Health Foundation. This edition of Connections features stories that illustrate the various ways that the arts are being used to change our perceptions, our understanding, our work, and ultimately (and hopefully) our policies in ways that improve community health. In January, the Foundation partnered with Arena Stage to underwrite 200 tickets for Anna Deavere Smith’s performance of Let Me Down Easy. It was not only a powerful performance, but also provided the venue for our community to come together and experience together the stories she portrayed on stage. After the play, a woman who had attended several earlier performances, shared her observation that the audience that afternoon seemed “different” and she couldn’t quite put her finger on that. The difference, perhaps, emerged because a majority of the audience that afternoon was comprised of people who share many of the same stories through their work addressing profound health and health care issues in our community. And what she felt, perhaps, was a silent communication stimulated through that shared experience.
It is my belief that expression through the arts draws us closer to the heart, to the soul, and to our humanity. In closing, Parker Palmer writes that, “The arts are a civilizing institution that can help us learn to hold tension in a way that leads to life, not death. A good painting, a good drama, a good novel, and a good musical composition share at least one trait: they are animated by the tension between their elements, a tension that not only attracts the eye, the ear, and the mind, but draws us into the experience art offers, the reality it has to share. Entering into the tension of great art, and allowing that tension to pull our hearts and minds open, is a time-honored way of becoming more human.”