Imagination and Health

Imagination and Health Blog 04/20/18 

Art is the use of the imagination, that magical quality which marks us out as different from every other living being. In our culture, most people think that art is only for “special” people, but I’ve always been especially interested in artists who aren’t in it to become famous, but rather to help other people, and so move the world forward.

More specifically, I’ve worked for 27 years with artists working to improve people’s health. The hundreds of artists I’ve known who do this always seem to bring to their work a joyful fearlessness in the face of chaos—and chaos is what every seriously ill person’s life has become. These artists actually thrive on chaos, and their work is a kind of deconstruction and reconstruction of it.

Creativity has always been a source of both power and connection for us human beings. Witness the prehistoric cave art of our forbears in Africa and Europe, which show these pre-verbal peoples living at the interface of the visible and invisible, conspiring with nature to unify their bodies, minds, and spirits. For all that their external lives would have been “nasty, brutish, and short”, when they had recourse to such body-mind-spirit unity, it must have been like enjoying what we now call a peak experience (being in flow, as psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls it). And when we can enter such highly focused states of consciousness I think we’re at our very healthiest, whatever our external situation may be.

I’ve had a love-hate relationship with science throughout my forty years as a doctor, while at the same time growing increasingly comfortable with intuitive knowledge, even—-dare I say it—using my creative imagination as a vital part of my intelligence to help people who came to me in need. Intuition is what I think John Keats (who graduated as a doctor from London University 150 years before I did) was talking about when he wrote about “the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination”. Which isn’t to dismiss science lock, stock and barrel, but art has got awfully short shrift in our modern preoccupation with science and technology. Many of our universities seem to see the humanities as a rather wasteful indulgence, not useful to our “progress” in the world. Well, I’m happy to declare that I always saw art as at least as important an aspect of medicine as science.

Children were always my best teachers, and it was they who first led me to explore the links between art and health. Children always seem to use their creative intelligence to deal with hard situations—and especially the life-limiting illnesses that beset so many of them in my care. Their creative intelligence instinctively seeks to make sense of frightening or confusing things beyond their physical control. I like to think of them as “artists in life”, until well-meaning education batters such instincts into place,forced to conform to that mind-numbing state we call convention.

When I was a hospice director, I sometimes found it helpful to write a poem about a child or teenager who’d died. It was both a means to deal with my grief and sense of failure and also a way to bear witness to, even celebrate, a short life well lived. A sixteen-year-old girl I cared for died on a respirator. At her request, I spent the last 36 hours of her life at her bedside. Looking back, I think she knew instinctively that request was the best thing she could do for herself over those few remaining hours.

For myself, it was as if we shared something of our actual cellular structure during those hours:

Cell Shed

I lean in among the plastic tubes besetting you,

my breath voluntary, yours urged.

Our cells mingle each with each other’s,

spilling in spindrift of air-water-ice between mouths.

You, going, dying, take my life to rest.

I, living, left, draw in, exhale your seed.

Close to the last breath of this young woman’s life, I drew as close as modern medicine’s paraphernalia allowed. In such intimacy, I got the sense of her cells being shed directly into my own breath, while I was breathing my own cells directly into her. I had the fanciful thought that I was bearing off something of her immortality into our temporal world, while she was transporting a fragment of my earthly body to rest with her in heaven. A peaceful feeling. A peaceful death.