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Jeremy Nobel, MD, MPH Headshot

Lessons Learned in Boston: Creative Arts Expression As a Path Toward Recovery and Resilience

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It's been a year. Despite four deaths, a few hundred injured, and a merciless attack on our city's sense of safety and security, Boston is stronger now than it was before the bombs went off. The city is united in important ways, resolute and ready to run that race again -- this time with the whole world looking on. Terrorism failed in Boston, and I think there are lessons to be learned from the last year of Boston's recovery about resilience in general.

A month following last year's bombing, I posted something here, sharing my perspective as a public health professional that resilience is fundamental to the public's health, and suggesting a concerted effort be launched to better understand resilience, measure it, and produce it as a sturdy plank in our social platform. Sadly, there is no future scenario in which the threat of community and personal disruption from terrorism and other violent antisocial acts, or weather disasters like Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, or even economic disruptions like the 2008 recession, can be excluded, or even becomes less likely. Consequently, we need to be as prepared as possible to withstand these shocks, recover, and move on.

There are many factors that increase resilience: close relationships with family and friends, a sense of confidence in being able to adapt and respond to adversity, good problem solving and communication skills, and an ability to frame negative events within a context that allows the perception of at least a partial positive meaning. Since resilience is vital to survival, it is not surprising that social activities and rituals that support and grow these factors, at both the individual and community level, are all part of how we respond and cope.

Many are aware of the activities in and around Boston and elsewhere that brought people together and provided support by offering a sense of connectedness and meaning. Some of these activities were focused and tactical, like forming teams to run together in this year's marathon, or to support others who will. In other cases, community groups formed to help individuals recover, raise funds for victims, or to honor them in various ways.

There are less well-known stories, of how people turned toward the power of creative arts as a source of healing and hope, employing music, writing, visual arts and more as a means to reflect upon, and find a way to "make sense" of the events last April 15, and to move forward -- and in doing so, gave the rest of us a lift too!

Callie Benjamin: Callie, a student at Berklee College of Music, and a server at Boylston Street's Forum, was at work when the second bomb went off in front of the restaurant. Callie had been serving on the patio, and went to the kitchen moments before the explosion shattered glass, limbs and lives just yards away. She launched into action to help evacuate patrons and assist the injured. Through her song, "April," Callie used her craft to process the complex feelings she experienced in the aftermath.

Ben Johnston: Having endured an IED blast five years before the bombing, and the deaths of two close friends killed in Afghanistan a month earlier, Iraq veteran and Berklee songwriting student Ben Johnston was all too familiar with the shock and fear he witnessed among his fellow students, whose normally safe environment became, for a time, a war zone. "I Don't Have a Song for That," written by Johnston and Berklee alum Jordan Lucero just before the bombings, would help the tight knit student community cope with feelings of anxiety that lingered in the aftermath.

Walter Dunbar: Boston EMT Walter Dunbar was on duty at the marathon, a few blocks from the explosions, and helped to treat the critically wounded and save lives. He returned to painting as a way to reconnect with life, and alleviate the surreal and haunting memories of his experience. He was invited to run the marathon this year. It will be his first.

Dan Blakeslee: Artist and songwriter Dan Blakeslee had been standing at the finish line an hour before the bombs went off, and heard the explosions from his Somerville apartment. He turned to his art to process his emotions, drawing the Hearts for Boston logo that became a symbol of solidarity in the days following the event. His design not only helped him heal -- it was used on posters, t-shirts and pins to raise money for some of the hardest hit victims.

All of these creative-arts based activities shared something important -- the ability to convert a torrent of difficult thoughts and feelings into something that while rooted in memories of the horrific, could construct a bridge to a different set of emotions and perspectives. Creative "bridges" provide a way to move ahead past tragic events, allowing us to ford our rivers of doubt, propelled forward by the conviction that we are "all in this together" and "no one gets left behind."

I believe that this unique and vital ability for creative arts to allow us to withstand the shock of terrible experiences, and still find a path that has meaning and purpose -- to convert our pain and challenges into stories that can be shared with others in a way that inspires, motivates and connects -- is what explains the importance and centrality of art through history. As a public health practitioner, I think that a serious exploration and promotion of creative expression as a way to better put us in touch with ourselves and others -- increasing resilience even as it increases compassion and empathy -- is timely and warranted...not just in Boston, but worldwide.

Visit www.artandhealing.org/blog for these stories, and Callie and Benjamin's songs.