the English language we acquired the word risk via the French 'riscare' from the Italian 'risco', a derivative of the verb 'riscare' meaning
to run into danger. Now interestingly, the word danger is etymologically parallel
to dominion. Originally to "be in someone's danger" meant to be in his power or
under his dominion. Danger, dominion and dominate derive from the Latin, 'dominus' meaning Lord or master. So here are two express needs of adolescence that are
embedded in the word itself:
the need to be nourished
- the need to establish mastery or dominion
Adolescence is a time of transition from being utterly dependent upon others for
nourishment to beginning to establish one's own dominion or mastery over one's
self, one's means of nourishment, one's impulses, and the space one inhabits.
What are turf wars, gang symbols, graffiti, body piercing, tattoos, or clothing
styles different from others than efforts to broadcast dominion over one's neighborhood,
or one's body, and certainly one's image in the world. If we just say our adolescents
are "at risk", that leaves us with an abstraction, without an image to work with
and perhaps without much of an emotional understanding of the issue. If we say
"Our adolescents are sailing dangerously close to the rocks", we have an image
and something we can respond to with passion and imagination. What is not conveyed
in the term "at risk" comes across fully in the image of sailing dangerously close
to the rocks: exhilaration, beauty, excitement, challenge, terror, and power.
The image also helps us frame our question: "How can we help them from crashing
into the rocks and being lost? How can we help them navigate the dangerous yet
exciting passage that is adolescence?" Specifically, how can the expressive arts
help? The image hints at what will not work: education, prohibition, punishment.
I image also suggests what the solution will have to have: beauty, danger, excitement,
challenge, terror and exhilaration. It isn't risk itself that is the problem;
it is the lack of imagination about what the risk might look like, the lack of
imagination about what risk is all about. Our job as artists and expressive arts
therapists is to help people imagine.
imagination is the most important faculty we possess. It can be our greatest resource
or our most formidable adversary. It is through our imagination that we discern
possibilities and options" (Allen, 1995, p.3). Everything that exists was first
imagined. We live our lives according to the stories we tell, which are the products
of our imaginations. For example, that our adolescents are at risk is a story
line we are currently telling. I am suggesting in this talk that a major value
of expressive art is that it gives us the means to create better stories and to
better tell our stories. For it is in how we tell our stories that reality is
created. If we want life to have depth and to be worth living, we need stories
that are complex and vivid, full of compassion, adventure and hope. Full, in other
words, of risk. My experience, both personal and in observing others, is that
when stories are told from the head alone or predominantly from a place of logic
and rationality, they tend toward the dismal, simplistic and unhappy. But when
pictures are added, images are used, something shifts, and we see more possibilities.
Think of the difference between reading a novel and looking at a graph. Both kinds
of information are valuable. When I read the simple, stark statistics about youth
drug use, my mind is affected; when I watch a movie like Traffic, where
teenagers use crack cocaine and dump a friend who has overdosed on the ground
outside an emergency room and speed away, my mind, my heart and my spirit are
says Joseph Campbell, the mythologist, "invite the eye not to rush a long, but
to rest awhile and dwell with them in the enjoyment of the revelation" (1974,
xi). It is not always enjoyment but it is engagement we are after. How can we
stay with something long enough to really learn and absorb its meaning? How do
we stick around for the story behind the statistics? Expressive art is a powerful
means to do this. The pleasure that comes from making and doing, painting, dancing,
helps us stay engaged. The more we do that, the more attuned we become to the
meaning below the message. We consider that stories can be both reductive and
revelatory; we can use our imaginations to move between these two kinds of stories
to have a fuller, richer grasp of what is going on. The Youth Risk Behavior Study
(2005) for example, gives us the story of at risk youth in a pared down, bare
bones way. This is the story told by the epidemiologist and it is an important
story. As artists we understand that art is about call and response. The epidemiologist's
story calls out to me and my response begins like this: " This is a story of malnourishment
as serious as the story of swollen-bellied babies in Africa". How can that be
the story of adolescents in the United States of America in the year 2005? I ask.
This is the land of plenty; the land of opportunity. I have to search into the
story with my imagination. This is a story that cries out for a new telling. The
way stories and myths arise in a culture is through the exercise of imagination
by its people. I have done this many times with kids in the studio. The story
the world tells about Terry is he's a gang banger, he's dangerous. At first glance
maybe you'd think that is the story told in his art as well. But his witness writing
tells another story. He was attacked and beaten by other boys. He is afraid; he
carries a knife for protection. In nearly every case, these big boys who many
would close the street to avoid do not see themselves as others see them. Their
stories are ones of vulnerability, terror, and often shame at feeling this way.
let's turn our imagination to the story we are telling about our youth being at
risk. The first thing I notice is that I have shifted the vocabulary. This is
important because the story of at risk adolescent includes me, it includes all
of us. Who am I to an adolescent? What is my role in the story? I am an adult.
That is a pretty generic term, neutral even, that gives minimal information. I
can surmise that I am separate but I get no clear sense of our relationship and
what is expected of me, the adult, in relation to the adolescent. Is the adolescent
a predator? Am I a possible victim?
who am I to a youth? I am an elder. These words imply something about teaching
or mentoring, about respect and tradition. About relationship. Am I willing to
have a relationship to youth? Am I willing to be an elder? Adolescents are striving
to become adults. They will take my place, where will I go? The old age home?
I don't so much like the sound of this story. But to be an elder in relation to
youth, that implies responsibility; it implies relationship and connectedness
that is absent in the words adult and adolescent. I have found that as an artist
I can be an elder. The kids respect my skills; they see my work so I become vulnerable
to their judgments. I have something I can teach and share. But also the relationship
is reciprocal because as an artist I am open to learning from their images, I
know truth when I see it and I'm not afraid of it. An artist is a special category
of adult to most kids.
we look a little bit more closely at the nature of these words, adult and adolescent
and youth and elder, we can find one of the most persistent and deadly stories
of Western culture. This is the myth of the naturalness of separation of young
people from parents and family. Some of our best contemporary researches have
labored long and hard to put this myth to rest. Carol Gilligan, professor of education
at Harvard and a leading researcher of the lives and experiences of adolescent
girls cites John Bowlby the eminent developmental theorist who has argued persuasively
that primary familial attachment is an ongoing developmental requirement. Bowlby
criticizes the psychoanalytic view of "adolescent development as requiring a withdrawal
of attachment to parents which derives from Freud' theories of dependency and
libido (Gilligan, 1990, p. 112).
how often is it stated as an accepted fact that teenagers don't like being with
their families, are embarrassed by their parents, don't want anything to do with
family gatherings etc. How much of an adolescent's time is structured to disrupt
family connection and undermine attachment? In her research Gilligan has found
where attachment is unsatisfying or lacking as a source of nurturance"·girls may
resort to precocious sexual involvement in a bid for attachment rather than for
actual sexual gratification" (p. 114). Whether by design or ignorance, parents
send their children into a kind of exile that begins around the sixth grade, though
it may be getting earlier, I'm not sure. It is at this age that proto-adult issues
such as sexuality, relationships with the opposite sex, smoking, and drinking
and experimentation with drugs become vivid for children and it is at this point
that parents are still clinging to the image of childhood as a relatively carefree
time. Parents seem to imagine these issues are a ways off, in some vague land
they remember from their own high school days, which bear little or no resemblance
to the world their children inhabit. Kids have told me that they realize that
their parents are oblivious and keep much of their reality to themselves in part
to spare their parents the pain of confronting how inhospitable the world sometimes
is for kids. Kids wear a bland or angry mask at home to accomplish this end; parents
have deluded themselves to believe 'this is how kids are'. Patricia Hersch, author
of A Tribe Apart, a best selling book about her firsthand account of adolescent
culture says: "Over a decade adolescents themselves have rewritten the map of
their journey to adulthood in infinite variations and we need to study this new
geography" (1995, p. 363). Parents are often unaware of the desperate need for
nurturance that their offspring have, a need that children wish passionately to
have met by their families.
William Pollock, co-director of the Center for Men at McLean Hospital in Belmont,
MA says: "When we don't talk about the issues that are bothering our teenage boys,
when we force them to separate rather than support them as they learn to individuate,
they may retreat behind the mask so completely and consistently that it becomes
hardened and fixed in place" (1998, p. 155). This hardening of his countenance
is painful and uncomfortable for boys who want to feel real. Pollock finds that
boys use alcohol and drugs to loosen it. "When the intoxication wears off, the
boy retreats behind the mask. The straitjacket tightens and he begins to repress
his true self again" (p. 157). He continues: "Some boys turn to drugs like marijuana
and cocaine in a vain attempt to ease the pain of being adolescent..To numb the
pain of emotions -the disconnection they feel from their parents, their low self-esteem,
problems at school, with peers or with their budding sexuality" (p. 156). Tell
mask story and look at the boy's faces.
In reality, all adolescents are "at-risk" because all of them are sailing dangerously
close to the rocks as they navigate their way into adulthood, seeking the necessary
nourishment to sustain them on their journey. As an adult I may or may not be
willing to help them on this journey. And as you all know, the "rocks" are many,
some hidden below the water, some set up to entice with a siren's song played
endlessly on T.V. There are many false offers of nourishment to adolescents along
the way, false maps handed out at every turn. The items we list as risks are so
embedded in our culture, often so unquestioned that we sometimes have to wonder
how anyone makes it to the next harbor intact.
the most carefully nourished kid must set out on this journey. Even the ones with
good maps cannot anticipate hidden rocks: the dad suddenly downsized, the mom
diagnosed with breast cancer, the friend hit by a drunk driver or killed in Iraq.
I would submit to you, our job is not in fact one of prevention of risks, first
because that is impossible. It is not risk prevention but the redefinition of
risk, the re-imagination of risk that is our job. Because no one can successfully
navigate adolescence and reach adulthood unless they have been tested by taking
risks. Risks are necessary if we are to grow and become fully alive. And, the
ability to continue to take risks is how we remain engaged throughout our life,
to continue to transcend our 'self with a small 's' and engage with the "Self"
by shedding our outworn identities and claiming the next phase of life with gusto
is very interesting to consider the relationship of the major health risk behaviors
that adolescents engage in. Putting aside injuries for a moment, let's look at
some of the others: tobacco, alcohol and drugs, sex and food all have to do with
ways in which human beings nourish ourselves. Each constitutes a substance taken
in to fill us up, to replenish or realign our energies. Historically, each has
had an honored place in rites and rituals of renewal in all religious traditions.
This ritual meaning also applies to the other two categories: injuries and physical
exertions. We need think no farther than the Sundance ceremony of the Arapaho
and other Native Americans to call up an image that reminds us of the place of
injury in shifting energy, moving one's self definition, from that of an ordinary
young man to that of a warrior. Some inner city gangs make killing a rival member
that sort of initiation. From this vantage point we notice something else: all
the risk behaviors surveyed: getting hurt, smoking, drinking and getting high,
eating, engaging in sexual acts and even exercising are all actions which can
serve to alter human consciousness. In the case of adolescents it may often be
correct to say that the alternation of consciousness is the primary motivation
for engaging in risk behavior.
arts offer many of the same opportunities as the risk behaviors listed. Using
materials is a deeply satisfying experience of being nourished. Paint is also
very reliable, unlike many human beings. Red stays red, every time I mix it with
yellow, I get orange, this is something I can count on. Dancing and singing provide
a kind of exhilaration that is the release of endorphins in the body but without
the hangover. Performing in front of others is both terrifying and thrilling.
Those of us here who partake of any of the expressive arts can attest to the fact
that art alters consciousness. And, there is this amazing payoff, once the immediate
high wears off, my world view is enlarged and more spacious, my emotions are clearer
and I have made connections with others with whom I can share my experience. I
am in a word, nourished, more flexible and able to participate in the world.
are two general motives for seeking to alter consciousness and often both are
present for any human being. These are the pursuit of pleasure and the pursuit
of meaning. Anxiety, boredom, disappointment, embarrassment, terror, ennui and
guilt can be exchanged at least in the short-term via alcohol, cigarettes, a Big
Mac, speeding down the highway, a runner's high, a slit wrist, cunnilingus or
a tab of ecstasy. It is human to want to alter consciousness. All religion and
ritual and much great art, particularly the performative arts of music, dance
and drama are based on the fundamental desire for transcendence that comes through
the alteration of consciousness. It was one of the best days of my life when an
adolescent boy came to my studio one afternoon unexpectedly. Grant had been excused
from class because he had to go downtown and deal with a court date. He arrived
at class about an hour and a half late and sat down and immediately began to draw.
I noticed he was drawing images of marijuana leaves and a smoking joint, images
he would not have been allowed to draw if this class took place in his public
school. He smiled at me and kept working. When it was time to read witnesses,
the writings I ask kids to do in response to their art work, he said: "I came
here instead of getting stoned. It was really hard to be downtown, to be in court.
It was so crowded and noisy on the train. Everything went okay but I was really
nervous. I couldn't wait to get home and smoke a joint but instead I came here.
I drew about it instead". The studio and the relationships and the materials provided
many of the same elements Grant was used to getting through smoking pot: release
of tension, calming of his nerves, a pleasant sensation of relaxation. The bonus
he gained from drawing instead was he got smiles of support from other people,
a sense of having met a challenge. He risked his fragile ego in exposing his true
feelings to us and he was rewarded with the exhilaration that comes from hearing
yourself tell the truth, out loud, and having it witnessed by others.
Carl Jung, who incidentally spent six years altering his consciousness on a regular
basis through his paintings and active imagination, was contacted by Bill Wilson,
the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, who credited Jung with insight into the predicament
of the alcoholic. Jung's insight was that no rational explanation would provide
a cure. Instead, he viewed the craving for alcohol as a "low level spiritual thirst
for wholeness" "You see" said Jung, "Alcohol in Latin is 'spiritus' and
you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as for the
most depraving poison, the helpful formula therefore is : spiritus contras
spiritum." (letter to Bill Wilson, January, 1961). Bill Wilson recognized
in Jung's counsel that only a profound spiritual experience, involving an alteration
of consciousness, essentially the dissolution of the ego, and a new identity or
sense of meaning, could bring the alcoholic to a new place. Grant was practicing
with exchanging his identity of pothead for that of artist, with giving up his
tough guy ego ideal and exchanging it for that of an honest man, sensitive to
feelings of vulnerability. The studio provided a culture of honesty in which such
risks were taken by many adolescents.
This dissolution of the ego is the experience needed for the adolescent to pass
from the experience of childhood into adulthood. The experience of loosening the
ego boundaries is at once pleasurable and terrifying. It evokes our early life
in utero, a sense of oneness that was our pre-birth state as well as the ecstatic
experience of care and connection with the mother. This state remains as a template
of consciousness that we return to in some measure at every life transition. Without
culturally constructed means to periodically reach that state where we are renewed
through receiving a new identity, life becomes brittle and dry, devoid of spark
and meaning. We are isolated and lose our way. Having lost the traditional means
for returning to the transcendent state and emerging with a new identity, our
adolescents create ritual and quest after meaning with the means at hand: food,
drugs, risky behavior in the sexual realm. Anyone who has watched the movie Trainspotting can easily see the nature of ritual created about preparing and shooting up heroin,
sharing that ritual in a community of like-minded others, the pleasure that ensues
almost immediately for the addict is palpable. He is no longer in the squalid
surroundings that we the viewers are left in; he has journeyed elsewhere and is
happier for the trip.
Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi, the University of Chicago researcher who wrote the book
entitled Being Adolescent, (1984) says this: "·the pursuit of spontaneous
sources of pleasure does not lead to growth. Experiencing pleasure simply returns
the organism to a homeostatic balance; it does not propel it to change toward
greater complexity" p. 264. Here in lies a major problem with the risk behaviors
of adolescents. Biologically programmed to seek experiences of pleasure, or the
relief of pain, boredom or oppression leaves out another major need: that is the
need for meaning that comes with taking successfully taking risks. Csikzentmihalyi
continues: "When people enjoy an activity, it is because of a balanced tension
between challenges and skills. If the challenges get to be too high, and the person
doubts his ability to succeed, worry ensues and leads to anxiety. However, if
there is no way to make use of one's skills, then boredom arrives and extreme
boredom also yields anxiety." What Csikzentmihalyi describes as flow is an optimal
mix of challenge and enjoyment. Enjoyment, he notes however, is an unstable state,
"To keep experiencing flow one must try new things and do them better every time·enjoyment
is like a built-in thermostat that indicates whether we are operating at full
capacity, at the leading edge of growth"p. 262?). Expressive arts are a very reliable
means to attaining flow and promoting growth. Art experiences can be planned by
an experienced expressive art therapist to account for the level of skill of the
adolescents and to make sure opportunities for growth are built in and can be
accessed at will. Paintings can be repainted when the youngster is unsatisfied
with his result, art materials are ever willing to be re-engaged with over and
is a simple means. Our bodies are finely tuned rhythmic organisms. Vickie Dodd,
a teacher and body worker says: "All of the individual organs and systems of the
body vibrate in their own rhythm and tone which creates the internal orchestra
that is the body, the symphony of life" (2005). (Walt Whitman said, "I sing the
body electric"). "Each of us emits a unique tone, which is possible to hear and
sense. Drug abuse, poor diet, negative thoughts forms, and all denied emotions
create dis-ease, which disturb our basic rhythm, causing the tone of the body
to become dissonant. To restore balance, one needs to undergo a transformation
of emotions"(p. 24). Entering into the studio we have all the means for that transformation
of emotion to take place, with an optimal balance of risk and safety.
is a numinous time of transition between childhood and adulthood. School is usually
the main location of growth possibilities. But schools are designed to handle
a volume of young people and cannot necessarily provide carefully enough calibrated
experience with the right mix of challenge and enjoyment. In fact, many schools
would be puzzled at the idea that enjoyment should be part of their charge, even
though research shows that learning is at best difficult without it. Here is what
Csikzentmihalyi says: "Perhaps the main reason adolescents stop growing is because
their initial lack of skills is exposed too suddenly to excessive challenges·the
expectation of failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that precludes further
growth" p.269. Most of the at-risk adolescents with whom I have worked have in
fact been "exposed too suddenly to excessive challenges", the death of a parent,
divorce and relocation, for some simply arriving at middle school to find socially
precocious peers pressuring them to use substances or engage in sexual behavior,
or arriving at high school and finding the size and scale of the building and
population overwhelming, the academic expectations crushing. For some there has
never been quite enough to go around, enough attention, enough guidance, enough
food even. Adolescence brings a stark awareness of the differences between one's
self and others that can prove to be the last straw. "The more attention required
for physical survival, the less is left to discover paths of growth (p. 269).
I designed the program "Sharing Good Vibrations" with a colleague of mine, we
had many exciting plans. He is a musician as well as a physicist. He knows about
recording music on the computer, something we thought the kids would love to do.
Our class consisted of building a drum, a fairly involved project that included
using power tools, tuning a real goatskin drum head, as well as designing and
painting the sound tube of the drum. We helped the kids with all these tasks with
great patience. When it came times to make music, and Carl brought along a synthesizer
and his laptop, the kids became sullen and withdrew. To try and reengage them,
I began to play simple games like banging out a rhythm and calling someone's name
"This is what I think Megan sounds like" now Megan you go. Before long an hour
had passed and the energy in the room was light and happy. My big high schoolers
needed to touch base with the neglected and hungry five year olds inside them.
We made the rhythm game a part of every class after that and although we planned
and carried out a drum circle at the high school and the kids exhibited their
drums proudly, we never got to the computer, or synthesizer or sampling tracks
and burning a CD.
transitional aspect of adolescence requires that we return somehow to "touch base"
with the primal state before proceeding. If that five year old never had anyone
play that way with her, this stage will take quite awhile and should be joyfully
accepted as important work of reparation, a task for which the expressive arts
are especially suited. There is no way to talk about having an inner ache and
emptiness without taking what may be felt as much too big a risk, but in the context
of art, all is possible and the metaphor of the image can hold so much. Megan
made a pillow in art class. She didn't know exactly why. She used computer transfer
paper to embellish it with photos of small children. Psychologists might call
this a transitional object. As an artist I see much more. I had been working on
some pillows in my effort to explore and redefine the "women's work" of sewing.
Several of these were around the studio. Megan referenced my work and reinvented
the idea of a comfort object, a latter -day stuffed toy that I bet stats on her
bed forever. Here in the studio she is able to create her own nourishment, relate
artist to artist and be a leader among her peers in expressing tender feelings.
The same girl who also chose for her photo project with disposable cameras to
document one weekend's drug use. The studio holds everything. As an artist I am
willing to witness the reality of these kids life, not just the socially acceptable
aspects, be cause art is about truth.
the adolescent is guided by elders through meaningful rites of passage, emerging
out the other side with a new identity and purpose. Adolescents need to have this
transition orchestrated and celebrated with appropriate risks and challenges.
What we give them is driver's ed and high school. They get specialized learning,
pass tests, receive honors but something is missing on a very important level,
the level of feeling. There are vestiges: sports teams, cross-town rivalries,
and the school play. But let's face it, Denzel Washington aside, even the best
high school football coach is no shaman, a winning season is not a vision quest,
in fact, in stead of being a passage to a new identity, the adolescent is told:
these are your glory days, its all down hill from here. You're a has-been the
day after that championship game.
summary, because the expressive arts have built in risks and safe ways to alter
consciousness, they are an ideal antidote to what society currently offers to
the at risk adolescent, a panoply of dangerous options that put body and soul
in peril or watered down experiences meant to be safe which are far from effective.
We can help kids build worthy crafts in which to sail dangerously close to the
rocks, we can also help them make maps of the territory. But this brings me to
another point that feels very important. Are we, the adults, willing to be elders?
Are we willing to be honest, true guides who take our own risks, dissolve our
own outworn identities, fight to make the world a better place for our youth?
We need opportunities for elders and youngsters to be together and speak the truth.
There is no better arena for this than the art studio, the dance troupe, the drum
circle. Patricia Hersch says: "Kids need adults who bear witness to the details
of their lives and count them as something·they need appreciation for who they
are" (p. 363). When I create alongside adolescents and read my words aloud, I
take a risk, not just the risk of my so-called authority, in fact that is no risk
at all. My authority, my credibility with kids comes from the fact that they see
my art, my struggles, my truth. The risk I take is that the unfinished adolescent
in me is in the room and wakes up around these kids. All our unfinished dreams,
our unmourned losses, all the fears and insecurities that abounded in me the teenager
are suddenly present alongside me the artist, me, the mom, me the well trained
art therapist. I suggest to you that it is to keep that person under wraps that
so many parents avoid their adolescent kids. It is unconscious, not meant to be
harmful but let's face it, pretty much everyone lurched through adolescence, touched
down somewhere on drugs, alcohol, sex and got past the rough spots maybe but there's
plenty of unfinished business there for just about everyone. We can view that
as an opportunity or something to fear. But the art space can give us the solvents
to loosen our worn out masks and the absolution we crave in the presence of the
kids we want so badly to love.
Allen, P.B., (1995). Art is a way of knowing. Boston: Shambhala Publications.
Ayto, J. (1990). Dictionary of word origins. New York: Little, Brown and
Campbell, J. (1974). The mythic image. Princeton, N.J,: Princeton U. Press.
Carl Jung's letter to Bill Wilson, (1961). www.barefootsworld.net/jungletter
Csikzentmihalyi, M. (1984). Being adolescent.
V. (2004). Turning blues to gold: Soundprints. Wovenword.com
Gilligan, C. , ed. (1990) Making connections. Cambridge, MA: Harvard U.
Hersch, P. (1995). A tribe apart.
Pollock, W. (1998). Real boys. New York: Henry Holt.
Youth Risk Behavior Study Oklahoma (2003). U.S. Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention (CDC) and Division of Adolescent and School Health.
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