Opening the sacred door to creativity
From food and pets to dancing or listening to music, creativity blesses our lives. How do we turn this creative blessing into a spiritual blessing?
When we acknowledge that creative inner part of us, and learn to use and direct it, we have found a spiritual stream that reduces stress and helps our bodies increase the natural flow of normal hormones. And when we explore the many facets of creativity, sacred power comes to baptize and enrich our lives, power that lets us step outside the box of present emotions into a rewarding adventure.
Upfront, let’s put a disclaimer. We know that using creative arts does not guarantee healing. If it did there wouldn’t be illness, and we would all be in full health out there dancing or singing, playing pro ball, or maybe just mowing the grass. However, research shows that some creative endeavors DO improve the immune system. In this general field of psychoneuroimmunology (psycho-neuro-immunology) , researchers in individual studies around the world have shown that psychological stressors such as cancer surgery deal an unhealthy blow to the immune system. Under study is the theory that stress and fear can affect cancer’s recurrence. The studies vary, but most are based on the premise that creative stress reduction is good for the immune system.
What makes it spiritual?
So, it’s good for us, but how does creativity become spiritual? By our desire to make it so, and, in mystical and surprising ways, our creative expressions reveal new things to us. God, the creator of all – mountains, lakes, land, animals and all humankind – created us as His representatives with spiritual and creative similarity.
We are not to be God, but we can be of the same spirit. We are not to be God, but we can be creative with the blessing of a creative God, and, thanks to common sense and science, we know these creative ways are holy and healing.
What a gift! In our creativity we can find healing and expression of lament, doubt, faith and joy and expression of for our human interaction.
Think for a minute about your complex brain and its minute functions. Psychiatrists and neurologists talk about the varied functions of different areas of the brain. For example, a portion of the right brain embodies the emotional functions of personality that might include fantasy, feeling, spatial perception, philosophy and religion. It is the synthesizing, intuitive area where creativity rules in a world where things can be felt, touched or seen. Persons with right brain dominance know what they mean but may have trouble expressing the idea verbally.
The left area of the brain thinks in a logical, sequential and rational way. It is analytical and objective, detail-oriented, and easily uses words and language. Persons who have left brain dominance are reality based and form strategies based on parts of the whole that are worked into a larger picture. Facts rule. Even for functions that are taken care of by both sides of the brain, each side of the brain focuses on a different aspect of what is happening.
It’s a simplified picture, but as a person steps up to form interaction between the intuitive and the logical, many amazing things begin to happen. Right-side fantasy gets assessed and helped by the logical, or stoic left-side. Organized words become expressed, felt and dealt with. Whatever your dominant side of the brain, interchange is helped by trying creative expression.
Did you just ever take time to realize the creativity that exists in your being? If you’re thinking, “Me? I’m not creative. I come from the other side of my brain,” think again. If you’re thinking, “Who, me? How can I be creative when I’m so exhausted and sick?” Yes you. Looking back, you will see that you have already been creative just in the way you have managed to cope so far. Perhaps you have used creative excuses when people ask how you are feeling. And, of course, they ask you every few minutes as if a health bulletin from the cancer center was being released twice daily. Or you may have discovered a way to turn off the light switch with your cane without getting out of your chair. Or did you lie in bed looking out the window at the clouds, naming the shapes. Or you may have tried drumming, doing crazy things like aluminum foil folding, mud writing, or gumdrop design. Did you make a beautiful, gliding paper airplane from your hospital menu or an advertisement that came in the mail?
You may have given the nod to other creative actions without even realizing that you were so exceptional. Creative, an adjective used to describe persons who are inventive, ingenious, innovative or just original, can often be characterized just as the way you put your life together or put on your socks.
Exploring a Creative Outlook
Some people seem to come naturally to a creative general approach to living, while others need to examine, find or adapt it. If you fall into the latter category, there’s good news! You may find that God nudges you along and gives you freedom to explore possibilities, and along with the nudges, God gives you enough whimsy to see creativity in your current life or courage to step into an unfamiliar pattern.
Great personal and health rewards await the person who steps out in partnership with God to grasp the healing power of an imaginative outlook on life.
Rudy went into his creative outlook the hard way:
I’m Rudy, a biology teacher for twelve years. I deal with facts organized into groups, straight rows, written down on paper and tested. When cancer hit, my first impulse was to deal with the facts and research Hodgkin Lymphoma by reading about it on the internet night after night. What I found out led to understanding, but I was mad all the time. I had to miss classes for doctor’s appointments, and couldn’t eat my favorite foods and a bunch of other stuff. A friend suggested it might help to make a list of all the things I couldn’t do and put them in a box and throw the box away. Felt good, but I was still weighted down and sad until I listened to a Christian radio sermon about creative, positive thinking. After that, I made a list of things I could actually do right now. I was desperate to try anything to get my mind off myself. There was a riding stable down the road, so I put that on my list. Trying something new was scary, and I prayed all the way there, but, since that first day at the stable, Magnolia, my rental horse, has become a good friend. Either the horse or God or something has helped me look at my life different. Now I’m tutoring biology at Hinde Community Center. I just show up when I feel like it, and I always leave feeling happy. Rudy is a 4 year survivor
Going creative” is like going green. It has a life-changing way as it moves persons from one reality to another and spreads into all the fingers of life. For example, you may have used creative swallowing when things just wouldn’t go down or stay down. You just examined your options and created something smooth and cold or hot and delicious Or you got on the internet looking for a creative solution, found several, selected your best option, then used your creativity to try it. New recipes and strange ways to eat may be creative, but some people have to be creative just to lie down in bed or to get to work if they can’t drive. Creativity in the fingers of life has no end, and they offer an option besides just getting by.
The difference between just getting by and using your creativity as spiritual can bring both tears and laughs. Partnering with the God of WITH may help you throw off the cloak of self consciousness, and give you an open mind to try new things. Some discoveries about yourself may bring tears of joy or sadness. Other venues of creativity may make you fall over laughing. In between are the ordinary, comfortable results of trying something new. It’s an adventure!
It’s a fine line when your hair is falling out. It’s leaving! Tears can’t stop it, so go creative. What color do you want the remaining hair to be? Would you like it black and white striped or red and blue patriotic? And into what strange mountain of sculpting do you want it to stand for the next hour? Try mousse, gel or chocolate pudding. Look at yourself in the mirror while you polish off the rest of the pudding with a spoon. You can’t do it without laughing.
Horseback riding, creative cooking, non-cooking, creative eating, swallowing gently and chocolate pudding hair may or may not help maintain or restore balance in our lives. So—beyond chocolate pudding what more subtle or sophisticated creativity can you step into? Explore the possibilities in the arts, some of them traditional and others a bit off the wall.
The Healing Power of Music
Music can be an awesome partner in life – both the listening to music and the making of music. It can inspire you to feel and express joys and grief of the spirit. It communicates to something deep within you spiritually often finding emotions and declarations you didn’t even know were there! And, (Wow! Thank you God) music’s emotions and mental declarations last even after you have stopped listening to or making music.
Leon Hale, columnist for THE HOUSTON CHRONICLE2 noted during a homey weekend that he had all the comforts of home including air conditioning and television, plenty of books and newspapers to read, but he had the feeling something was missing from his house. When he solved the feeling, it was music that was missing. He concluded, “I think being without music for several days is unhealthy. It creates a damaging emptiness in the human spirit. It’s sort of like the physical harm you can do by not eating your vegetables.”
Perhaps contemporary writer Leon Hale labeled a life need for us: music. Listening to music has unsuspected powers.
Cassiodorus puts music in perspective for us writing in 550 AD, The Divine Letters. He says, “Music doth extenuate fears, furies, appeareth cruelty, abateth heaviness, and to such as are wakeful it causeth quiet rest; it cures all irksomeness and heaviness of the soul.”3
Ancient language, but contemporary thought of how music gives substance and definition, but Cassidorus left out the expressions of great joy, faith, and festivities of special events. Imagine the procession of women celebrating David’s victory over the giant Philistine with joyful songs and a dancing chorus accompanied by tambourines,
Who can hear the richly woven music and scriptural text of the Brahms requiem without feeling sadness then joy.
As music nourishes emotionally and spiritually, it also communicates directly to our bodies and has also been shown to strengthen the immune system and ease mind-stress and muscle tension. As an added attraction, music also enables the brain to shift speeds as needed. Scientific research now supports what people for centuries have felt about the therapeutic qualities of music. The New York Academy of Sciences recently published a body of research that talks about how music, both listening to it and playing it, can change brain function. The Wellness Center in Meadville, PA conducted research with cancer patients that involved playing drums. The results showed stronger immune systems as a result of music therapy. And a number of scientific studies have shown that music therapy can be part of cancer therapy to ease the physical symptoms of nausea and vomiting and to decrease the use of pain medication. Other clinical trials have revealed reduction in heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, insomnia, depression and anxiety.
The Creative Power of Listening to Music
Listening has purposes ranging from creating a stately setting for a coronation, the drum beat of a funeral procession, setting the mood for a candlelight dinner or entering the bodies of teenagers who want to jump for joy. When you’re ill, stress reduction may pop up as a major purpose. Most of the time we don’t think of our purpose with music; we just enjoy the richness of it from rap to symphonies, American Indian ritual drumming, and hymns to dance music.
It is obvious that we bring many experiences to our listening couch. How we select and listen to music may depend on whether we are musically trained, how we interpret music, our current sensory situation, how in the past music has raised our physiological arousal state, and how easily we think out of the box and listen to something new.
Although no one knows exactly why or how music works to help us, it has been suggested that sound and rhythm distract the mind from focusing on anxiety. Another theory holds that the muscles of our body learn to synchronize with the beat of the music, and scientists have studied the variance of rhythms and tempo and harmonic and disharmonic groups 3 (Schrekenberg and Bird and Scott Severance ) Or it may be that music is a salve of healing that moves mysteriously through a body via the spirit. That’s what ancient Greek philosophers believed, and it is the basis for many singing rituals used by Native Americans whose drum circle beats have been successfully used in cancer-music research. 4
Pure enjoyment of the sort of music you like gives a sense of well-being, and the joy of selecting just what you want to hear gives a sense of control over your life when it seems most control has been handed on to illness or persons involved in your illness. Listen to your music. Try hymns of faith. Swing and sway to a waltz. Jazz it up. Listen to a symphony, maybe even conduct with it. Make up rap. Let the music wrap you.
Music was used in the care of the dying in the monastery in Cluny, France in the tenth century. “Infirmary music” was offered as part of the ritual for those approaching death. It’s no wonder, then, that in the contemporary world we are using music to help us heal and calm ourselves as well as making a transition in death.
One aid in the transition is a sub-specialty of palliative care called Thanatology, from the Greek thantos meaning death. Thanatologists use harp and voice music in rituals called vigils that are most often Gregorian chants, contemporary faith chants and lullabies. Vigils use alternating silence and prescribed music to communicate with patients on a deep, not logical, plane. Thanatologists are obtained by referral for patients who are expected to die within 48 hours or who are experiencing fear, discomfort or suffering. A vigil must be requested by the patient or the family of a patient, and the music is palliative for all of them when the music creates a cocoon of unity for all by reducing the pain and intensity of the situation.
Isn’t it amazing that from the time when David played his harp for Saul to banish his depression until the present, the harp still communicates in a gentle and soothing way! Isn’t it amazing that inside each of us is a need for the rich expression of music in some form, and each person’s need is different. Sing! Listen! Move any part of your body that will move! Or choose to keep your tired body silently wrapped in sound.
The Creative Power of Making Music
Making music can be as simple or complex as you desire, but an investment of time and discipline pays off in heartfelt satisfaction. Shinichi Suzuki developed a method of teaching students to make music that would also produce persons with, as he called it, “noble hearts.” One of the tenets of his teaching methods was to train young students to listen to the beauty and try to recreate it. His methods, also based on gendering teacher-student respect, seemed to have spillover power into other aspects of a student’s life. They began to look for and feel beauty in other sounds, and their discipline and personal humility reached into all aspects of life.
The Orff approach to teaching people to make music combines music, drama and speech in an atmosphere similar to child’s play, and it embodies a sense of confidence and interest in students. Carl Orff’s special interest was rhythm, and he found ways to make it important with students who were differently abled.
Both methods challenge us to practice our talents or use them to learn a new way to make music. From Orff we can learn the importance of rhythm and the ease with which we incorporate it into life. This encourages us to “just begin” wherever we are, perhaps toe tapping, head nodding, straw sucking to rhythm. From Suzuki we can learn that there is beauty in music even if it’s just singing in the shower. It may be that you hated piano lessons when you were eight, but you might enjoy finding the old John Thompson’s book and limbering up your mind and fingers to make beautiful sounds even if they aren’t perfect. Or surely you can find your old trombone in the attic, oil it up, practice breathing and produce some at first hilarious sounds that eventually turn in to something else. Get outside the logic box of the left side of the brain into the right and creative side. Play the piano or any instrument or sing. Along the way try saying thank you to God for that old talent so long sent into the attic, but just now rediscovered because just now you are ill and can’t climb Mt. Everest.
The psalmist wrote beautiful words enticing people to use whatever instruments they had at hand. Among the handiest was (and is) the human voice, always with them and easily used. The psalms are filled with inspiring images, assonance, alliterations and word plays. The following verses are impassioned and vivid.
Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth, burst into jubilant song with music;
make music to the Lord with the harp
with the harp and the sound of singing,
with trumpets and the blast of the ram’s horn –
shout for joy before the Lord, the King
Psalm 98: 4-6 NIV
While the psalmist was primarily urging people to praise God in the sanctuary, that same enthusiasm can be applied to the voice as a vehicle to express the soul in daily life. Is there an event that makes you want to sing – either a hum of contentedness, a musical shout of enthusiasm or a lament? It’s okay to be off key, or it’s okay to sing opera. Your singing voice may be undiscovered or technically refined, it doesn’t matter. If singing is a response for you, do it to the credit of your mental and physical health and your complete enjoyment, and, do it in the company of God.
The Healing Power of Drumming
Drumming is fun, can be loud, and may have deeper meanings than you think. Rhythm and tempo, the most influential musical elements, have a strong influence on the body whether in wellness or illness. Drums are well documented as a creative and theraputic device for promoting health. Early on, Native American drums communicated everything from war to marriage and birth and, when appropriate, helped synchronize the heart beat and put rhythm and balance in life.
The west African djembe drum because of its construction can whisper, screech, sing, penetrate with deep sounds, and, used together, can be used to excite people and stir up for the battle of war or ceremonial purpose. If you want to buy only one drum, make it a djembe or an ashiko. Both are easy to use but have infinite possibilities, and a price range to fit any ones’ wallet. One other thing: the djembe stands easily next to your chair where you can reach out and drum your joy or frustration, go into a contemplative mood to get in touch with yourself and your present situation, or just practice to improve your skill. Some people use it to punctuate a gratitude list: name something and celebrate it with a variety of “bangings.” The sound is best when the djembe is tilted off the floor, but next to your chair, even flat on the floor, it’s a presence, possibly a reminder of your struggle to get tempo and balance in your life.
With no expenditure at all, you can round up a complete set of drums for your solo enjoyment or to use with your family. Drum on the bottom of a trash can, plastic laundry basket, metal canister, PVC pipe, stainless steel mixing bowl or pan using a wooden spoon or your hands for resonance.
Drumming can powerfully lead you to your inner core, but the power stays hidden until you call it up as a spiritual expression. Studies have shown that drumming changes brain wave activity inducing excitement or calmness, and it also has calming effects on blood pressure and lifestyle. Drumming is a joyful experience with the power to transform.5
Drumming is so valuable that in today’s world, drum circles are used therapeutically around the world among persons of all ages with or without disabilities. There’s something about being in sync with a group, copying beat patterns and keeping the rhythm going that reaches inside each of us to say, “Great going!” Read more about the value of drum circles in DRUM CIRCLE SPIRIT by Arthur Hull from White Cliffs Media, Reno, Nevada, or read THE HEALING POWER OF THE DRUM, Robert Lawrence Friedman, White Cliffs Media, Reno, NV.
A circle of drums doesn’t have to be a circle. You can communicate your feelings and get life in rhythm and express yourself alone, or you can thoughtlessly find rhythm and tempo as you tap your spoon against the table. Call it spoon therapy. Or find another person willing to join you in drumming and start yourself a group. Alone with no drums? Surely at hand you have an eggbeater or spatula that would make good rhythm with the radio. Can’t use your arms? Tap your fingers wherever they are and whenever you can or set up a foot-pat tempo. Put an African shakera on your birthday wish list. Shake something, even if its dried beans in a cardboard box. It’s good exercise, it’s fun, and it’s good for you.
A testimonial to these facts is “Bang On A Can” that live-streamed a marathon concert during the 2020 Chronovirus lockdown. In isolation because of the virus, they pulled together 25 groups from all over the world showcasing them to “form unity amid isolation and division.” (Houston Chronicle Preview page D11, June 12, 2020) Livestreamed on a Sunday, everyone could watch, listen or participate by banging on a can. Everyone can bang.
Directed Music Therapy
Intentional music therapy promotes healing, alleviates pain and coaxes a better quality of life to the forefront in stressful situations.
To our listening or performing couch we can add directed music therapy, an interpersonal process that uses directed, evidence-based interventions. A music therapist helps people effect lasting change or deal with immediate situations where stress, anxiety and extreme change have overwhelmed a person. There are more than 5,000 professional music therapists working in health care settings today, many of whom are on cancer management teams.
In the field of music therapy one character stands out: poor Old Testament King Saul from the Bible. If there was ever someone who needed calming of the soul it was Saul. No matter what he did, good or bad, he seemed to end up in a state of depression that made his world turn black, and the only person who could help him was David, a good-looking kid with a great voice and a talent for playing the harp. Before he came to the palace, David had plenty of time to practice on his father’s sheep back in the country, so since sheep are skittery, he had learned what calms. David’s words and music soothed Saul, calmed and reassured him so that he could sleep, causing some people to speculate that David was one of the first music therapists. On a sleepless night, don’t we wish for the young David to come sit on a little stool by our bed and play his harp and sing in soothing tones? In your imagination, see David with a small harp in his hands sitting on a little green stool next to your bed. He is singing one line from a psalm over and over until you sink into slumber.
The Creative Power of Visual Art
Just as the imaginative use of music can be a spiritual, healing experience, so is visual art in its many forms. Painting or viewing paintings or other fine art allows us to get in touch with God and get in better touch with ourselves. Fine art or other art forms has the power to transform us if we are willing to be open and observant and willing to explore them with good intentions.
You might be surprised to discover that your favorite artist has been trying to make order out of her universe through drawing the power lines of her downtown. Or maybe SHE wasn’t, but her drawings helped you consider the order of YOUR universe through your viewing these themes as you face death. Art opens up both your worlds. Or you may later see joy and rest in other drawings or paintings as the order is resolved.
The sacred walk can be more fun and more spiritual, when you express yourself through painting. You may be thinking “Van Gogh or Monnet,” but I’m thinking ways to express, renew and entertain. For example, in the field of painting, how many different ways can you think of to paint your toenails? Stripes? Dots? Glitter? Manly stars? Black-and-blue? Smiley faces? Jack-o-lanterns? If there was ever a time a man, woman or child could go bonkers with polish, now is the time. And when someone asks you what you did this morning, you can honestly say, “I’ve been painting!”
In the field of painting during cancer, art therapists suggest painting your feelings or painting your pain. There’s something about painting your feelings that comes out your fingertips offering you great surprises and insights about yourself. You didn’t know you felt that way until you looked at what you had done. One special needs student with a disability painted a rainbow happy sky scene. The next month when she had to move to a state facility, her painting was done in browns and blacks. A month later, as she adjusted and made new friends, her sky scene was lighter and more colorful. She had not done this deliberately; the paintings had just reflected her emotions.
Artist Karen Musick, 6 learned to express her physical pain on canvas. A person in pain can look at one of her pictures and relate to the pain she feels. Just studying one of her pictures may inspire you to try your hand at transferring your angst or joy to canvas or paper.
Have you ever seen a Styrofoam meat tray with frustration dents made into artistic designs? Or have you ever used shaving foam on a dry shower stall to create a landscape or a portrait of yourself? Van Gogh might not think so, but that’s artistic expression. At this point, while you’re dry, why not do a little body sculpting with the shaving foam? Draw an outline of your face on your bathroom mirror and add shaving foam hair sculpted different ways. Be all that you want to be!
You may find joy and relaxation in just doodling with a pencil, creating chalk lines, splashing watercolor blobs on paper or creating a serious landscape or other picture. Or try placing a blob of paint or cranberry juice (whatever is at hand) on paper and use your straw to blow the color this way and that. Tree, cactus, angles, modern art! Or let your pet get into the arty act by walking on the blob of color and tracking or smearing or licking, or……etc. Etc. is a good word to use in creativity. It covers anything, even making dirt or ink tracks with the wheels on your wheelchair.
Make a mosaic of putting your life back together by using pieces of your torn up hospital breakfast menu. Use anything to turn chaos into something useful or even beautiful.
Art has many uses. Even draping scraps of cloth around a cross or polishing a flat rock with any religious symbol can create a mind-pathway to remind us that God is with us on this walk in the woods. Your tin can becomes an expression of joy in God’s creation, or a brick on the patio with a symbol scratched into its surface serves as a reminder. Perhaps a new symbol every week might create a literal pathway of triumph or record of despair.
There is also power in viewing art. It gives the mind a reprieve from stress, and it can provide a new window into understanding a still life or pastoral scene or the simplicity of groups of geometric colors.
A lot of art has origins in the Bible and has spiritual introductions. Rembrandt von Rijn, one of Europe’s greatest painters, was often financed by 17th century Dutch patrons who wanted paintings to instruct as well as to please the eye. His personal spiritual influence is evidenced in his depictions of scenes from the Bible and the way he used light to concentrate the inner thoughts and feelings of his subjects. “Out of his enormous artistic production (about 600 paintings, 300 etches, and 1500 drawings), about 850 of Rembrandt’s known works are from the Bible. Over 600 of his drawings of Biblical subjects survive. Many are on the backs of letters or bills and seem to be his personal meditations on Biblical subjects.”
Little did Auguste Rodin realize when he created The Thinker that people around the world would seriously consider his bronze and marble rendition of a muscular, serious male simply thinking as a representation of themselves. Viewing The Thinker allows a person to think with him. A connection is made, and the connection can be very important from any point of view. Not many persons have the real Thinker in their hometown, but copies abound as well as depictions everywhere.
Cancer patients may be inspired to create something of their own out of clay or any available medium from fresh bread to play dough. Don’t fret if your sculpture looks more like eggs or snakes than The Thinker or The Pieta. The sensory stimulation involves all of you, and the product may be either miraculous or hilarious. Okay! So humor is good for your immune system.
Macrame, a good sitting down craft, can be fun as well as useful, and the creative skills of weaving, quilting, crocheting and stitching can express order and a sense of control over a little portion of one’s life. Ordinary sewing can become extraordinary if it gets you outside yourself. Even hemming a pair of pants or a skirt becomes significant. It’s an accomplishment that reminds me of my frien Patti who claims that she hangs on to the hem. She means that in times of fast-moving stress she grabs at any part of Jesus she can reach and just hangs on. It’s biblical and found first in the Old Testament, Numbers 15:38, where the people were instructed to put fringes on the borders of the outer garments to signify that the person belonged to God and that person signified Godly beliefs. The story Patti was indicating as having faith beliefs is found in the New Testament in several places, easily read in Matthew 9:20.
Jesus never refused help no matter how tired he was or how many people were clamoring for help. What a noisy din it must have been: “Here, over here, Jesus!” or “Not there, Jesus,’ come to me,” or “Here! I need you over here!”
“…they brought to Him all those who were ill and besought Him to be allowed only to touch the fringe of his robe; and all who touched Him were restored to health.” or, as the King James version says: “Only touch the hem of his garment.” They were made whole.“
We know it wasn’t a magic garment but the power of trusting and being WITH Jesus.
Also in Matthew’s gospel is the story about the woman with a hemorrhage who reached out from the crowd and touched the hem of Jesus’ garment. Jesus noticed her or felt her touch and turned to look and tell her that her faith had made her well. Matthew 9:21-22. RSV
It helps to remember that being made whole, as some versions tell, does not necessarily mean but sometimes does mean made instantly, physically well. One of life’s great mysteries is the healing and non-healing of individuals. Faith has great power to heal and give balance and direction to life. Faith can provide a fresh viewpoint on life that takes away blame and victimiztation and directs you on to a positive path with the companionship of God.
The Grief-Healing Power of Creative Arts
Cancer zaps our entire lives with grief. In addition to the very big question of our own death or the loss of a family member, everyday losses sneak up on us – the loss of a job, loss of independence, being in isolation because of illness, divorce, failure of a treatment protocol, the sudden discovery that our life was misspent – all of these put us in the circle of grief. Psychologists name several stages of grief, but although knowing the stages allows us to gauge progress in our grief, the average person may find the names unimportant. What persons know is that they are angry and sad, confused and even numb. One moment we are faith-comforted, hanging “on to the hem of Jesus,” but the next we may weep or shout at our loss. The psalmist describes it as, “Deep calls to deep on the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me.” (Psalm 42:7 NIV).
The apostle Paul writing from one of his missionary journeys reveals to us that he had at sometime hit the bottom of life to the point that he did not know what to pray for. How was it that he couldn’t talk to his God about his problems? His discovery that the Holy Spirit would intercede for him was a hope he wanted to share, one that could sustain other sufferers, maybe you or me :
In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. (Romans 8:26 NIV Study Bible)
The Therapeutic Power of Groaning
Sister Thea Bowman brought the African perspective to her suffering in cancer. Granddaughter of a slave, teacher, activist and advocate, she was a trailblazing Sister who encouraged others to stand up for black Catholics in America. She says she has a different viewpoint focusing on the good things in life: “When living with intractable pain, or using oxygen to facilitate breathing, or slowly losing the ability to see, we have a choice. We can continually mourn our lost self, or we can focus on the good things we still have, especially our relationship with others.” She wanted to tell loved ones that they were loved. Frustration in this endeavor led her to share the importance of therapeutic moaning (or call it groaning). She found it a way of centering or focusing her internal, wordless outcry to God. Your friends and relatives may become alarmed and should be warned that you are practicing an African way of venting many things from sadness to frustration to almost anything. Enlist others in moaning with you when appropriate. After expressing anguish, release the object of it to God with the expectation and certain knowledge that He loves you and is a certain presence in your journey. Recognizing the anguish and releasing it through moaning or groaning often gives emotional release or cleansing. A person near you may recognize your anguish but be reluctant to join in because they do not know what to say, especially when your future is a big blur. They may be trying to focus the oblong blur and put it into words with you.
Author’s note here: This has long been one of my favorite books, and this quotation hit me because of some of my disabilities: intractable pain even with massive pain medication, my use of oxygen at all times, my sight loss due to giant cell arteritis. It felt like Sister Bowman was speaking directly to me, especially when my husband pointed out that I had been moaning that morning.
The Healing Power of Pets
Your pet is a gold mine! Do you talk to the cat? Or does your cat just sit in your lap and purr? Does your dog know all your secrets? Or does she just lie on the foot of your bed and keep your feet warm? Do you sing to your canary or do you just listen to him? Good! Whatever your pet does, it’s personal, and it’s good for you. Pets give a different and enjoyable perspective to daily life, and, beyond the enjoyment of your pets, you may have a gold mine of healing right there next to you. Pet love is unconditional. They don’t care if you are old, skinny, overweight, have lost your eyebrows or use a cane. They don’t care if your personality seems to change from time to time. They know when you are out of sorts but seem to know you will get over it. Pets are good listeners, and don’t sass back or give you advice. They offer companionship, and they are good conversation starters with your friends. They also provide touch stimulation making a non-verbal connection that is comforting and especially important for persons who live alone. Also entertaining, pets can be valuable and dependable, but how are these characteristics a gold that pets require us to give something, and they must be healthy. Dr. Edward Creagan of the Mayo Clinic writes in “The Health Benefits of Pets”10 about the healing power of pets. He says there is a surge of hormones deep in the center of the brain that help a cancer or other chronic illness patient find peace and serenity. He notes that pets can lower blood pressure, lessen depression and decrease your pulse rate.
Other research points to pets as a means of companionship and a decrease in feelings of loneliness and isolation felt by so many chronically ill persons. Some persons are physically isolated as they live alone or in a rural setting, but others may be completely surrounded by persons, and still feel isolated because no one comprehends the depth of what is happening to them. Chronically ill persons who have pets have been shown to eat better than non-pet owners. You can see this appetite improvement in assisted living facilities where fish tanks are visible in dining rooms, and a cat roams the halls.
WHAT KIND OF PET DO I NEED?
Before you rush out to the local SPCA to adopt a pet to make you well, consider the health of the animal. Know that pets have healing powers not curing powers, and remember that only a certified healthy pet is appropriate for someone who does not need a new illness. Also ask yourself how much energy investment you can make in caring for a pet. Fatigued as a rock? Think about getting a pet rock or soft, cuddly teddy bear instead of a dog. Also consider the kind of pet that is appropriate to the situation. While many cats are good listeners, not all cats are calming. Cats need to have a tolerant personality and one that does not become excited or aggressive. Cats have been shown to relieve pain and depression, and they stimulate mental alertness and increase communication. And they are good listeners, so, if you are going to adopt a cat, select one that will patiently listen to your lifelong secrets and your most frantic fears without climbing up the kitchen shutters.
Dogs, cats, horses, gerbils, or just any pets that provide interaction should be considered as gifts as they answer some of our needs, but there is another aspect to creative pet therapy. Pets require us to give something – attention, care, food, love or unconditional regard – and their need for us is important.
Brud knew he would survive even though doctors told him otherwise. He HAD to live because of Ralph. After Brud began to improve, his doctor asked why Ralph had never visited him. Brud laughed and said, “Oh, Ralph is my ninety pound Great Dane. He depends on me ‘cause he is old and mean. No one would ever take care of him.” With great determination, Brud improved and went home to take care of Ralph.
Ralph’s great need was a challenge and inspiration for Brud. Ralph may have been unfriendly and demanding, but he offered companionship and he needed care. Unfriendly pets have their places, but if you are looking for a pet during this time, look for one not on the wild side, but one that can be a friendly, touchable, peaceable companion.
Research shows that the companionship of a dog can help children adjust to their own serious illness, the illness in the family or the death of a parent. Huggable, talkable, often used as a pillow, a dog becomes for a child a substitute or a “leaner” perhaps even a fantasy character. Research on the value of pet ownership is ongoing and is documented, but there is value in other forms of directed pet therapy where you don’t own the pet, don’t have to feed, water or walk it.
ORGANIZED, CREATIVE PET THERAPY
98 year old actress Betty White is a well known animal welfare activist who recognized the use of pet therapy for healing. Although not recent, in her book Betty White’s Pet Love: How Pets Take Care of Us,10 the principals remain basically unchanged, showing the reader how important pets can be for physical and mental health.
It’s easy to see that creative use of pets can be personal ownership of a pet, pet facilitated therapy, animal assisted activities and animal assisted therapy can improve body function of the immune system.
In pet facilitated therapy or animal-assisted therapy (AAT) patients benefit from a therapist-assist with animals who are used in the treatment of physical, social, emotional and/or cognitive function. Depending on the situation, animals of all kind are used. The therapist outlines a proposed program and documents the patient’s progress. It is pleasurable, but it is controlled and specified by the therapist depending on the patient’s issues, much like a doctor writes a prescription for a particular medicine then decides if it works.
When an animal assists a person with disabilities such as a service dog, the dog is also trained, but to do specific functions that the care receiver can no longer do. Service dogs are used by persons who are vision impaired, have mobility diseases such as multiple sclerosis, and, most recently, are used with children who are autistic but who are not easily agitated or who display aggression.
If you are lucky enough to own a horse or pony, you will already know about the healing power of riding and caring for a horse. If not, consider going to a riding stable equipped to handle a rider not quite up to par either for the joy of riding or for directed therapeutic riding. Theraputic riding has been shown beneficial for a long list of medical and emotional conditions and it is endorsed by both the American Physical Therapy Association and the American Occupational Therapy Association. Consult your physician before enrolling.
The Healing Power of Creative Writing
You can harness and express feelings by putting them into words. Often just creating a label for them and transferring them into words can give you the power of wisdom. Keep a list of your feelings and/or events. It’s been done on hospital menus, on the back of get- well cards—-anything! However, keeping lists in a little notebook allows you to go back and review progress. In the process you can take a word from the past, figuratively hold it between your fingers and up to the light of God, turn it around and look from a new direction. What did it mean then? What does it mean or feel like today? Did you pray over it? Who helped you with positive understanding? You will discover new blessings.
Some other easy creative writing techniques include keeping a journal of feelings or keeping a diary. Often when one is ill, the chronology of daily events become mixed up, and keeping a diary can give a sense of order and control over what is happening. Your diary also becomes a medical as well as an emotional reference.
Writing short stories, plays and non-fiction can be great stress reducers as well. Writing fiction can be an outlet in which you are totally in charge of everything, so at a time when life control is a little iffy, you become a great manipulator, or your main character may do problem solving with surprising revelations to you.
Surrender to it. Everyone has at least one poem in them. Writing a poem causes your brain to cooperate with itself when it moves an event and feeling from the right side of your brain dealing in feeling and imagination to the left side where details, logic, words and language are dominant. It’s for your eyes only, so don’t worry about the form. Poetry takes raw word data and refines the words —and refines the words—-and refines the words on and on into a satisfying form. Even attempts at doing this can be humorous, but these same attempts help you move the experience into reality while clarifying both the words and understanding.
Writing the imagery of healing using metaphors for diminishing cancer cells is best but not exclusively done with a cancer therapist. You may encounter and learn to enjoy this type of treatment as part of your prescribed treatment protocol.
There is Power in Creative Serving
At a time when all our energy and determination must be focused on self and our illness, there is still someone nearby who can use a helping hand. The temporary circle of our world can overlap into the rest of the world through phone calls, prayer, sending cards of encouragement, sending donations to a cause or other creative endeavors. Serving others may involve a wider circle of involvement, but it may also be something very near at hand such as listening to someone’s lament or a story of joy. We do this by listening to words as well as observing body language including gestures. Within this mix, consider that there may be a spiritual thirst for connection in the person presented to you. “To hear requires that we slow down and make space both in our schedules and within our hearts to create a receiving place. Listening demands we grow quiet, so that we might encounter the essence of things. Because listening involves multiple ways of tending the soul’s voice, it becomes a path to intimacy with another person and with God.”11
Although the constraints of major illness may call for a change in lifestyle and make a person feel useless, there is good reason to intentionally shift some focus on others. Researchers have discovered what they call “Helper’s High” as getting euphoria or a buzz out of altruism. “John Hopkins Magazine recently detailed the works by Allan Luks, who has studied Helper’s High for quite some time. He describes the effect as being similar to a runner’s high after a workout. There is a release of endorphins in the giver’s body that lead to a feeling of elation followed by a feeling of calm. And unlike exercise, there’s evidence that the helper can actually get a small Helper’s High in recalling helping or charitable acts long after they’re finished.” 13 In addition to the possible euphoria, research shows that during service to others there is a release of the body’s natural painkillers, endorphins, which causes a decrease in both the intensity and the awareness of physical pain. People who volunteer report that they have a sense of purpose and a sense of connection to others that helps their own personal attitudes.
A brief theological word is appropriate here so that there will be no misunderstanding about serving. The unbounded grace offered by God means that we do not have to serve to earn brownie points to get into heaven or store up spiritual chits to be cashed in later. Christians serve because they are loved and live out that love in their daily lives as they are able.
With these facts in mind, also remind yourself that serving comes in many forms and is available right where you are, and at your capability level. You may not be able to rebuild a house after a hurricane, but you can listen to someone’s story about it or sit at a desk at the Red Cross or act as a receptionist at your church. Or your gift may be humor that you bring to a tough situation. Or, at this time, in your situation, you may be limited to displaying your love to the persons around you.
The Healing Power of Humor
Humor does not rescue us from unhappiness but enables us to move back from it a little.Mason Cooley, American Aphorist (1927-2002)
Another aphorism by Mason CooleyEvery day begins with an act of courage and hope: getting out of bed. City Aphorisms (1984) http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Mason_Cooley
It’s no joke that humor can rattle your endocrine system in to healing, and help you cough out pent up issues that can hold you prisoner. This may not seem like the time to have a good laugh but taking yourself too seriously even in the face of “serious with a capital C” may keep you from considering solutions for day-to-day dilemmas. Humor and a lightened perspective take you to a place where you can see things in a more creative, relaxed way, and cancer experts at the Mayo Clinic say that incorporating humor
“. . .can reduce stress, help control pain, improve your immune system and promote healing. It can divorce you from your personal heavy and challenging situation. “ http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/cancer/expert-blog/humor-and-cancer/bgp-20056414
In order to accomplish these things, you must be mindful in mapping out a lightened path of laughter and humor. Start your map by setting aside daily time to find humor, so that eventually humor naturally becomes a part of all your time. Find something sunny and funny. Celebrate it by noticing. No going around laughing all the time; just look for the lighter side in everyday life.
Ways to look at the lighter side
There are ways to help you look at your lighter side. Start with smiling. See the difference in the mirror. Research tells us that you can practice this even when things are not funny. And if you hear someone laughing, move toward that person. People like to share funny stories. Is this person playful and having fun? If possible, hang around because their playful point of view is contagious. Rekindle childhood playfulness by hanging out with some children. Playfulness is transformational.
- Read the comics. Clip an appropriate one for a friend to share.
- Look at archive television cartoons, the ones that made you laugh in your younger days. It’s silly, but you can get into it. Laugh at yourself for getting into it.
- Name your blessings. The act of looking for them is so positive it can push negative thoughts away. Remember to put your body on the blessing list since it is working hard for you.
- Remove yourself from conversations that drag you down by shifting the subject to, “What funny thing happened to you today?” or “The funniest thing happened to me today. I saw this woman wearing orange and tangerine socks with a hole over her big toe.”
- Look for absurdity in situations. The characteristics of humor are incongruity, absurdity and surprise.
- Shop for humorous apps for your smart phone or iPad or tablet –anything portable to take with you to the doctor’s office or on a bus ride.
- Laugh at the antics of your pet, and if you have no pet, go to a pet store and watch kittens play or listen to a parrot with a sore throat.
- Laugh with family and friends. Play humorous games with them.
- Watch for someone who thinks your personal “funny.” Finding your humor soul mate may take time since looking at the lighter side varies from person to person. Depending on our perceptions, different things will tickle the fancy of one person while the other sits wearing a stoic expression. Although a joke is different from humor, a joke example will demonstrate our differences. A joke is told. Grandma doesn’t laugh, Mother is laughing so hard she has tears, Brother has giggles and Uncle John asks what is funny. Another joke with a different cultural, occupational, age or recreational level might find the laughing reversed in this family.
- Although a joke brings a smile to your face, humor brings a smile to your mind, makes you think. Humor is a person’s ability to look at something through a lighthearted lens, in doing so, you might even make a joke.
Looking at the Big Picture
Now is the time. Not tomorrow or next year. Now is the time to go creative with the company of God. It’s in you to be creative, and if you don’t believe it, kick over the walls and try something new. You have the power to help yourself and others through being more than you are now. Now is your time. Be careful, a new adventure may lead to a new hobby, and the new hobby may turn into a profession. It happened to me when after my double mastectomy, I couldn’t do the usual consulting in Christian education, lifting displays and writing on white board. But I had time for my hobby of writing plays, poetry and magazine articles. It was satisfying and healing at the same time, and I was surprised to find that someone would pay me to do it. I found a new career in writing curriculum, enrichment articles, more plays and even books.
Investigate your creative options. The sky is the limit.
Dear Father, Creator, Thank you for my gifts — those I know and the ones I may discover. Thank you for your plan for healing powers and stress relievers. Please open the windows of my mind to explore new areas of expression and service.
1 Prof. Shamgar Ben-Ellyahu from Tel Aviv University’s Department of Psychology, Science Daily. Dr. Steven Maier, in Neal Miller Lecture, American Psychological Association 2001 Annual Convention, as reported by Beth Azar
2Houston Chronicle, “Affirming the Power of Music,” Leon Hale, July 26, 2006, p. 1E.
The World Treasury of Religious Quotations cimpiled and edited by Ralph L. Woods, Garland Books, 95 Madison Ave, NY, NY page 659 book in Chapelwood library
3 Schrekenberg and Bird and Scott Severance
4 Scott Severance
5 SACRED DRUMMING, Steven Ash, Sterling Publishing Co., Inc. 387 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10016, 2001, describing the spirit within, p. 46.
6 Karen Musick, firstname.lastname@example.org
7 Dunham Family Bible in America Museum, Houston Baptist University, 7502 Fondren Road, Houston, TX 77074-3298, October – December 2006, Vol. 4, No. p. 2.
8 Awakening the Creative Spirit, 1
9 Dr Cregan in the Health Benefits of Pets
10 Betty White, collected information
11 Awakening the Creative Spirit, Bringing the Arts to Spiritual Direction, Christine Valters Paintner and Betsy Beckman, Morehouse Publishing, New York, Harrisburg, Denver, 2010, p. 50.
12 “Bah-humbug: Science is proving there is a Helper’s High,” by Thor on Dec. 14th, 2006 In “Scientific Inquiry as quoted from Johns Hopkins Magazine.
(p. 134, Saints to Lean On, Spiritual Companions for illness and disability, Janice McGrane, S.S.J. _____________) from page 14 of this manuscript must place it in number for footnote
We are not God, but there is a spiritual part of us, an image or likeness of God that becomes apparent when we live in the essence of God’s love.