A new era is beginning in Washington, one of unusual uncertainty. Unlike previous administrations, and in concert with Congress, this one’s rhetoric and early actions indicate an intention to drastically cut federal budgets and eliminate services across a wide range of departments including Health and Human Services, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Endowment for the Arts, and others. Its attitude toward our national security is also quite different from past administrations and perhaps signals the start of a new world order. We see a willingness to taunt, an emerging superpower, China, sidle up to a declining power, Russia, and question our alliances with Europe and NATO. It’s unprecedented.
A willingness to radically break with norms of behavior has fed this climate of uncertainty. It has led many to fear for their well-being. How are we to respond to this new environment?
I’d like to suggest a response that hasn’t been discussed. It begins with a conversation. Through an exchange of ideas and beliefs we can learn to relieve or otherwise accept these tensions of fear and uncertainty and learn how to improve our well-being and resilience by engaging in the rich experiences of the arts.
Rich experiences in the arts and nature, according to John Dewey, help us increase our awareness, improve our judgment, and expand our values. As values grow the conscious mind is given a broader pallet from which to paint its logical conclusions. With this kind of growth judgment can be improved so that our criticism becomes an opportunity to re-educate one another not merely to pass judgment up or down.
By using safe arts experiences we, individuals, communities, and citizens of the world, can sharpen our perception of what it is to be well physically, psychologically, and socially. Two 2017 Academy Award nominees for Best Picture serve as illustrations.
For instance, the movie, “Lion,” beautifully tells the tale of a young boy who erroneously boards a train and is taken far from his home. His difficult journey to return home is a classic story: A person begins whole, becomes lost, and through luck, or grace, finds a path back with the help of community and, in this case, a kind adoptive family. His path toward wholeness is a path of healing.
“Moonlight,” another extraordinary recent film, is a story of identity, about gender, race, and community. It is set in a risky, crime troubled area of Miami. In the film’s poetic rendering we learn that while we may be identified as different in the light of others’ eyes, it is only we who can determine who we truly are, who we truly are to be. But it’s difficult. We are complex. We contain multitudes, as Whitman might say.
These movies seem especially resonant in today’s political climate. As the new administration in Washington begins, we find ourselves vigorously and heatedly debating questions of identity and home. Who are we as a people? As a country, for whom are we to be a home? What do we value?
We learn from behavioral scientists that our worldview, our brain circuitry, serves as a filter for our perception. It developed through our ancestors, our experience, our culture and is at the essence of who we are as humans. It’s our habits, values and biases…our behavior. Our worldview oddly enough can give us an imperfect view of the world. If facts don’t align with our filter we may not even notice them, and if we do notice them we may not accept them as true.
Our worldview can be expanded because we know how to reach the unconscious to help grow our values and shed light on our biases. The unconscious understands things in terms of stories, poetry, music, prayer, meditation and other experiences of art and nature. It recognizes the importance of passions and perception and the power of relationships.
Through our relationships we are reminded of our deep connectedness, our spiritual natures. This process increases the understanding of our shared needs, pains, paths to healing, imperfections, and even the gift of life itself.
Dewey said the moral function of art is to remove prejudice, to perfect the power to perceive, to see and understand the humanity we share, the connectedness we cannot sever.
Samuel Beckett also said that habits are the great deadener. Habits exist in our brain circuitry and can cease to work for us without our conscious knowledge. Sharpening perception through arts experience can allow us to restructure useless habits into practices of healing and wholeness, into practices of acceptance, gratitude, humility, tolerance, and forgiveness and other qualities of love.
So how will arts experiences help us in our response to this climate of fear and uncertainty?
With improved perception through rich experiences in the arts and nature we can develop better standards and practices of well-being, better habits of healing and resilience.
An example of a well-being practice would be to perform a self-assessment of our worldview using an arts experience, let’s say “Lion.” After seeing the movie with friends we could identify the values, habits, and biases that it invoked in us. We could then discuss how being exiled from home, or the fear of being lost is filtered by our respective worldviews and then talk about it in terms of the current political environment. As a result we might start challenging the filters that have built up over the years. We might consider modifying ineffective habits to relieve our tensions and create new avenues of healing.
In future writings we will elaborate more on standards and practices of well-being using arts and nature experiences.
The conversation has started. Who wants to join in?