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The Official Blog of Michael Schoenhofer, Executive Director

The Patient and The Artist

The power of the right question


For a time, while I was still working, I rode to work every day on a bus. One afternoon, as I waited in front of the library for my bus to arrive, another rider was waiting there with me. When she noticed my lunch bag that had "Mental Health" prominently written on the side, she said, "Oh! You work in mental health." I told her I did.


She sensed that I might have a sympathetic ear and launched into a list of diagnoses she was experiencing. When I looked interested, she informed me of all her medications, the dosages, and the side effects. As interesting as this was, I realized that her knowledge of symptoms and medicines was close to a psychiatrist. I was way out of my depth.


It looked like the bus would not come for a while, so in desperation, I asked her, "What do you like to do?” That stopped her cold. As she looked at me, her eyes narrowed, she took a long breath and stared at me. It was as if no one had ever asked her this question before. “I like to draw.”


“Really,” I said. “What do you like to draw?”

“I can draw anything I see.”

“What media do you use when you draw?”

“I enjoy pencil drawing and watercolor. I have drawn portraits of all my children.”

“That is amazing. I love to draw too,” I told her, “But I am still learning.”


Our bus arrived, and we sat together talking about art all the way to my stop. Before the bus arrived, I only saw a person suffering from multiple mental health diagnoses. When I got off the bus, I met a fellow artist. And it was all because of a simple question: What do you like to do? What do you love?


A while back, my brother and I met for breakfast. And I asked him the same question: What do you love to do? And I got the same reaction; his eyes narrowed in thought. He took a deep breath and stared at me. Then he said, "I love to spend time at my workbench, just like Dad." We didn't talk about the latest stories on Fox News or CNN. We talked about what he loved, what he was making, how it gave him a connection to our father, who had died a few years back. It was wonderful.


When I met the woman at the bus stop, we didn’t discuss her mental challenges. We talked about art. And with both my brother and the lady, we found common ground.


I know how much we look for and highlight our differences. A friend told me recently that there is so much discord around politics, medicine, and religion when he is with his family that all they can talk about is the weather. Why not ask a simple question that can change everything: What do you love?


We’ve begun a tradition in our family when we gather to set aside time to tell stories. We ask questions like, What has been the best thing that has happened to you this year. The most challenging? The most surprising? We gather around our Christmas tree and spend hours laughing and learning about what we might never have known if someone hadn’t asked.


Why not make this the centerpiece of your holiday gatherings this year? Don’t get sucked into the anger, arguing, and hatred that seems to surround us these days. Become the bringer of light and peace, and it can be as easy as a simple question: What do you love?


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