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Beauty as a Social Determinant of Health

My Pain

Years ago at a health conference I heard a nun who worked in Winnipeg’s North End say, “Beauty should be a social determinant of health.”

That stuck with me. The cancer hospital where I had treatment is an ugly, concrete bunker with few windows, no natural light and zero beauty. While I believe it matters more how people are treated rather than where they are treated, a little beauty for suffering cancer patients (and the staff who care for them) would not have hurt one little bit.

Beauty comes in the form of the softer side of life, not from policies, medical equipment and institutional lighting.

If we need beauty for health, then we need beauty for healing. At a children’s hospital where I worked, I fought hard but failed to get staff to try playing HUSH music in the waiting rooms to see what would happen. I had more success switching the bleak black and white photos in the hallways to vivid original art pieces, but it took months of effort to finish that simple project.

Art and music live in the humanities, but they could benefit science and medicine if only it was allowed. Most of us don’t have control over the physical space in health settings, so we must bring the concept of beauty for healing in-house.

I tell the tale in my book Bird’s Eye View of Lelainia Lloyd, a dear artist friend who hosted me one morning in her apartment to teach me how to make a collage with my pictures I took during cancer treatment. That chapter is called A Collage of Hope.

A Collage of Hope

These past two years have been tumultuous health-wise for me. While I was relieved in May to rule out a cancer recurrence, I still manage life in vaguely-diagnosed physical pain.

I’m a writer, but I find it difficult to explain my pain in words. So I leaned on what Lelainia taught me and made art about it. It is a collage called My Pain.

There is something about creating something tangible with your hands that validates that what you experience is real.

My little collage lives in my closet. I don’t care if it isn’t real art. It is mine and at a glance it tells a story about the inside of me that will never appear on my medical chart.

I’ve pitched the story of creating art to heal to a number of publications but have been rejected by them all. No matter. I'm 55 years old and weary of seeking external validation. So I’ve written this little essay on my own damn website instead.

If you are hurting, I hope you can consider immersing yourself in something beautiful. Write, paint, collage, dance, sculpt, play music, go to a play. If you aren’t sure how to start, begin by reading about art. Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is a classic book about writing. I just finished Jessica Swift’s new book Art for Self-Care that gives practical advice about how to create art, including collages, which are an easy way to dip your fingers into the world of visual art.

If life doesn’t offer you any beauty right now, you have to make it for your own fine self. You don't need to be an artist. You just need to begin.

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