Amid the pandemic, when the world quieted to the sounds of our own breathing when the stillness of our isolation felt dark, who did the healthcare workers on the frontlines battling COVID-19 turn to, earnestly and urgently, for comfort and meaning?
The skin on my face was weathered and raw from my tightly fit N95 mask and goggles. As an infectious disease physician, I spent my day treating hospitalized veterans with COVID-19 — some sicker than others. In my cold garage, I removed my hospital clothes and bolted across my home towards the shower, my so-called “home decontamination protocol.” Afterward, in self-enforced isolation, I turned on the television.
“Ah, a new movie is out!” I thought to myself while noticing the trailer for Andy Samberg’s “Palm Springs.” Watching him goofily dance at a wedding while in a time loop — I briefly escaped my reality. I could feel the endorphins released from my laughter, recharging my batteries to tackle the next day.
Buried in the science and politics of the virus, our society’s foundation has loosened from under us. Our routines, including the ways we work and socialize, now feel shapeless. How can we begin to navigate life knowing more lives will be lost? Perhaps now, more than ever, we should turn to the arts — visual art, literature, music, and performance — to help see us through the burdens of work, life, and survival piling up.
Healing from art, or art therapy, uses the effect of imagery, plot, and music on our psyche for insight, inspiration, emotional release, and relief. Art can change the way we think, feel, and deal with life’s ups and downs.
I know this firsthand as I turned to Hollywood when I was younger. As a teenager, both of my parents died. I felt this organic resonance to characters like Harry Potter and Batman, who had also lost their parents. Watching them navigate their emotional responses to overcome tragedy served as a blueprint for my own triumph.
During the second wave of the plague pandemic in Europe in the 16th century, the Archbishop of Milan, Carlo Borromeo, was concerned that processions would encourage disease transmission, and asked citizens to sing from their doors and windows during quarantine, which prompted beautiful music that echoed across time.
Take a moment to reflect on how art has helped you survive this pandemic, adding light to your dark. For me, there have been countless instances of art healing:
When I watched famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma in his living room performing during a livestream, I felt the warmth and the joy of the performance with others who were watching, knowing it was providing solace that their new routine may return to normal one day. I wonder if he knows his impact on so many people’s mental health by simply playing in his living room.
When I saw New York ballet dancer Ashlee Montague dancing in an empty Times Square in a gas mask, she provided comfort as she wrote on Instagram: “Art will endure. Art will survive. Art will thrive.”
In times of uncertainty, art can be a steadying force. When we marvel at something, whether it is a painting, prose, or a piece of music, we’re reminded of the human capacity to create and endure. When we engage in art, it is not always about escapism, but also about patience as we figure out the meaning of a poem or novel.
When I fell in love again watching Lili Reinhart’s “Chemical Hearts” or watching Brad Pitt amplify our public health message by masterfully impersonating Dr. Anthony Fauci on “Saturday Night Live.”
When I recently watched “The Day After Tomorrow” (the streaming trends of disaster movies have increased since the pandemic), which instead transitioned the experience of world-changing disasters into reassurance that it usually pans out well in the end.
Art is an exercise in appreciating beauty. It will sustain our spirit as we try to make sense of what’s happened, and as we find our foundation again. Yet, the artist has been deemed “non-essential.” If we value this significance of art, how do we not consider the artists worthy?
Most of us in healthcare emphatically shout: artists are essential.
On behalf of the healthcare community, the so-called “heroes” on the frontlines, thank you to all artists for allowing us to heal ourselves.
So please, keep creating. We are counting on you.
Jesse O’Shea, MD, is an infectious disease fellow.
This post appeared on KevinMD.