(inspired by Broadway’s Hamilton: An American Musical)
I’m past patiently waitin’. I’m passionately
smashin’ every expectation,
Every action’s an act of creation!
I’m laughin’ in the face of casualties and sorrow,
For the first time, I’m thinkin’ past tomorrow.
(My Shot, Hamilton: An American Musical)
I wouldn’t have become a therapist if I hadn’t personally experienced the healing power of telling my story. Speaking about where we came from, where we are now, and where we long to be, helps us define and discover who we are. Daring to speak of the depths of our fears, desires, confusions, and longings, brings meaning and mattering into our lives in a way that’s hard to put into words. And even those words—that talking, that speaking—can and do fall short. Indeed, “there are moments that the words don’t reach” (It’s Quiet Uptown, Hamilton: An American Musical).
This is when the magic of creativity can help. Clearly, “art imitates life.” In the process of healing, growing, and discovering a deeper sense of one’s life, art can be used as a powerful ally to pull all the pieces together. During the course of working with clients, I often draw from music, poetry, books, biography, and the performing arts to help illuminate or deepen the therapy process.
Most clients find references to pieces of art in session to be engaging and enjoyable. They often see themselves and the piece in new ways and draw new and/or deeper connections with both. Most clients also easily talk about how books, music, and performances immeasurably helped them during their childhood and adolescence by reflecting their own story and experience. At the time, most kids and adolescents are not able to consciously realize the therapeutic benefit of the art they encounter. Self-respect strengthens as a client recognizes their own intuitive ability to find connection and healing on their own through art.
I have the great fortune of clients bringing art that’s meaningful to them to share with me in their therapy. Not only do I get the privilege of hearing about all kinds of artistic expressions that have touched my client in some way, but I also get to have another lens through which to view their experience. This allows me to draw from both the client’s story and the artistic story to support and expand the client’s self-exploration and discovery. Then, in turn, I can bring this full circle and introduce the same piece to other clients and see how they benefit. I enjoy and find hope in witnessing how, in sharing what touches us, we can help others we don’t even know in a way we never imagined.
The current record-breaking Tony nominated, Grammy and Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway production, Hamilton: An American Musical, is one such gem. This musical is based upon another piece of work (Ron Chernow’s New York Times bestselling biography, Alexander Hamilton) which is based upon a man’s life (a Founding Father of the United States, Alexander Hamilton, 1755-1804): a story inspired by a story inspired by a story.
I will always treasure the gift of being introduced to Hamilton by a client. Not only does it help me work with my client, this musical and its vast cultural reach represents so much of what drives my desire to practice psychotherapy: to respect and honor an individual life and participate in a personal revolution that can, in turn, have an impact on the greater community.
Defined by Merriam-Webster, a revolution is “a sudden, radical, or complete change” and “a fundamental change in political organization; especially the overthrow or renunciation of one government or ruler and the substitution of another by the governed.” As applied to one’s personal life, the political is personal: overthrowing negative beliefs and relationships and bringing the unconscious conscious in the journey to live a free and empowered life.
How to do just that is outlined in Hamilton with commanding clarity in a succession of song and story-telling (songs/sections in italics):
1) Who am I because of AND despite of how I started? Alexander Hamilton
2) Do I matter enough to myself to take the opportunities my life presents? My Shot
3) Can I remember that personal choice remains despite opportunities and challenges? Wait for it
4) What do I want to free myself FROM? What beliefs, behaviors, relationship patterns do I want to change or break? (What’s my personal revolution?) Act I
What do I want to be free TO do? How do I nurture, support, and foster those new beliefs, behaviors and relationships and build a better future for myself, my loved ones, my community? Act II
5) How will I love? How will I stay committed to that love? And, when I fail, how will I seek and find forgiveness? Helpless, Satisfied, Say No To This, It’s Quiet Uptown
6) How do I balance my drive to produce/create with relationships I hold dear (work/life balance)? Can I temper compulsive drives? Non-Stop, Take a Break, Hurricane
7) What do I want my legacy of love to be? Can I accept the limits of my control? Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, Hamilton, includes so much of what I find myself helping people with in therapy—assimilating and understanding the first twenty formative years of life and then using the very skills we developed during those years to release that which is no longer necessary or useful. The first song is simply the name of the person the story is about: Alexander Hamilton. It crystallizes the first twenty years of his life in carefully crafted detail. The remaining forty-five songs are the resilience, reckoning, and reconciliation of his personal history—a childhood of poverty, the abandonment by his father at age ten, the illness and death of his mother when he was fourteen, and the devastation of his town by a hurricane. Orphaned, Hamilton makes his way to a “new land” by a combination of will, intellect, community support, and hope to leave a legacy showing his worth. His desire to demonstrate that he matters and that he wants to have an impact inspires us to see our lives similarly: no matter who we are and what our beginnings, our lives, in fact, do matter and can make an impact on our world. This inspires us all to say and live: “I’m not throwing away my shot” (My Shot, Hamilton).
People come to me with their name first. We spend time on the initial “song” of their childhood and adolescence. So much of what ensues also follows the story of Hamilton: developing the resilience to “rise up” (My Shot, Hamilton) from the ashes of our beginnings, valuing ourselves enough to courageously take our “shot” at this gift of life using the skills we’ve gained along the way, finding love and failing in it, only to find it again in an even deeper way, feeling fear and enduring loss, not doing it perfectly and seeking forgiveness. “Can you imagine?” (It’s Quiet Uptown, Hamilton).
I absolutely believe that the purpose of therapy is to have a personal revolution— overturning the oppression of the past and the authorities outside of self that no longer reflect who we are. I find meaning and value in my legacy of helping others live their own “Declaration of Independence” and, in so doing, change their world in the name of Freedom—for self, for love and for all.
References and Suggested Reading:
Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton. Penguin Books, 2005.
Hamilton, An American Musical. Dir. Kail, Thomas. Richard Rogers Theater, 2015.
Miranda, Lin-Manuel and McCarter, Jeremy. Hamilton, The Revolution. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2016.