News and Articles

Fighting Isolation Via Paintbrush, Page, Song and Stage

April 18, 2015

Many of us have a favorite phrase from a poem, song, or book — a line or lyric that speaks to us so deeply it makes us feel that someone sees into our soul. One of mine is from Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali: “I was singing all alone in a corner, and the melody caught your ear. You came down and stood at my cottage door.”

This poem resonates with me because it captures the focus of my life’s work: the irrepressible human hunger for connection. I also love the way it reminds us that creativity can catalyze the very connections we seek. After all, when the lonely narrator sings, someone else is moved to reach out, and together, they form a reciprocal bond of belonging, inspired by one “plaintive little strain.”

Many of us have had moments in our lives where we felt all alone in a corner, in forced silence by ourselves. Maybe we were ill, or grieving, or reeling from a personal trauma. Maybe we questioned our fit in the world, as Oscar-winning screenwriter Graham Moore recently described in explaining his teenage suicide attempt: “I felt weird and I felt different and I felt like I did not belong.”

Yet, in those moments of isolation and disconnection, creativity can be our salvation. It can be the bridge between light and dark, between hope and despair. As Joseph Campbell urges, “It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.” Through song and story, art and movement, we can offer up our inner life’s richness.

Celebrating one’s own imagination and creative spirit is inherently an act of self-respect. And, as Tagore’s poem describes, it can also serve to establish a sense of belonging with others.

That is why nurturing creativity is such an important antidote to isolation.

And that is why I’m so inspired by the many programs whose work rests on the foundation of that understanding.

In Canada, for example, young people in the remote and poverty-stricken Inuit community of Arviat, Nunavut, have joined art workshops to help them connect with their community and express the power of their own experience. I was privileged to showcase some of their art at the world’s first-ever Overcoming Isolation and Deepening Social Connectedness symposium, which I convened in Toronto in October 2014. One young artist, Daniel Kooveanatuk, described the way that tapping into his creativity had enriched his sense of self: “I am looking at art from a new perspective. It’s a way to connect with my inner feelings. And as I learn more, it’s changing the way I look at life.” Likewise, all of us who saw the exhibit were touched and moved by the personal stories behind each creation, which helped us to feel even more connected to both the art and the artists.

Another example is the SAGE Story project — an initiative led by the Service & Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Elders (SAGE), with support from the AARP Foundation, that trains and encourages older LGBT people to share their personal narratives. The risk of social isolation that accompanies aging is intensified among older LGBT people, as they may have smaller support networks or have been victims of discrimination throughout their lives. The act of shaping and sharing their stories not only helps boost LGBT elders’ resilience, but also sparks greater empathy and understanding among caregivers and the wider community.

As these two projects illustrate, one of creativity’s greatest gifts is that its impact is two-way: It isn’t just the person who shares a story who is changed, but also the person who hears it. As narrative expert Thaler Pekar argues, “Communication can be transformative.” As we create and share our own stories, we affect each other’s lives.

That power can be felt even if you’re on the receiving end of the story, and even if the story is fictional.

I think of Julianne Moore’s words when accepting an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in Still Alice: “So many people with this disease feel isolated and marginalized, and one of the wonderful things about movies is it makes us feel seen and not alone.”

Or look at the Amazon Studios series Transparent, which has introduced viewers to a host of transgender characters, and is helping to bring a previously “other-ized” community into the cultural mainstream. Jeffrey Tambor’s sensitive portrayal of Maura Pfefferman reminds us of Einstein’s call to “remember your humanity,” even as it reminds us that to be a human being is, by definition, to be different from everybody else.

And being different can feel lonely. But there are many tools to build and strengthen the bonds of belonging. It is time we count the paintbrush, the page, the song, and the stage as full partners among them.

If you — or someone you know — need help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. 

If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.

For more articles by Kim Samuel, please visit: