Sunday, July 22, 2007

Patch Adams-The Patron Saint of Laughter

"The creative individual cannot grow up because he keeps growing."
-Eric Hoffel

If Norman Cousins was the Lazarus of laughter, then Saint Paul would have to be Patch Adams, who has spread the word about the healing power of laughter into some of the darkest places on the globe. Many people are familiar with the movie about this wonderful man, but many may not know he also travels to places ripped apart by war and ethnic cleansing like Bosnia where he continues to spread the word. Patch and his clowns have worked with Aids patients in Africa, refugees in Afghanistan, as well as with children in Haiti and El Salvador, and have found that laughter can reach people even in the utter depths of despair.

What Patch also found was that beyond medical attention, what many people needed was stimulation and to reconnect with their fellow human beings. He found that many "medical" conditions were in fact a symptom of a loss of connection with life that manifested itself in a person's biological conditions. This was often the case with the elderly people I worked with in my own life, as the decline in their physical health often coincided with their loss of connection with the outside world. By providing stimulation and laughter we were able to provide a kind of reconnection, and this often had positive implications for their physical health that made even the most skeptical medical practitioners take pause.

In Patch's own words, "we found that the vast majority of our adult population does not have a day to day vitality for life (which we would define as good health). The idea that a person was healthy because of normal lab values and clear x-rays had no relationship to who the person was. Good health was much more deeply related to close friendships, meaningful work, a lived spirituality of any kind, an opportunity for loving service and an engaging relationship to nature, the arts, wonder, curiosity, passion and hope. All of these are time-consuming, impractical needs. When we don't meet these needs, the business of high-tech medicine diagnoses mental illness and treats with pills."

These are very wise words that got me thinking about the idea of loss as it relates to physical health. As Mental Health practitioners understanding what a person has lost in their life often reveals important clues as to what brings a person in to see us. Have they lost their job? Their marriage? A close friend? Their looks? Their youth? Asking these questions offers important clues as to the origins of a person's problem, and the answer to these questions may be a prescription for all of the things Patch Adams describes above as a "road back" to life. The key to this road back begins with laughter, as through laughing we can begin to filter life's losses through the wisdom and humor of our shared humanity. By learning to laugh at our own misfortunes we may develop a deep kinship with our fellow travelers as we take solace in our common fallibility. This creates connections, and these connections help us build relationships, and laughter is the glue that may bond these relationships together. Patch Adams has spent a lifetime demonstrating the power of this simple yet elegant principle, and his life has been an example of the power of this idea.


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