I know, I know … bad bad blogger.
I just haven’t been feelin’ it. Or at least, I hadn’t been feeling it … until I had an incredibly inspiring conversation with Héctor Aristizábal a couple days ago. From Pasadena Weekly:
In 1982, soldiers took him and his brother, Juan Fernando, from their home in a war-torn Colombian village on suspicion of involvement with anti-government Marxist rebels. For a week they suffered physical and psychological pain — electric shock to the genitals, beatings, near-drowning in a bucket of dirty water, even a mock execution with bullets whizzing past their heads — difficult enough for anyone to describe, let alone experience, though it’s been the fate of thousands.
But re-living his torture has been the only way Aristizábal, now a psychotherapist and part-time actor living in Pasadena, has been able to deal with it. And acting out the trauma in front of an audience, he says, is as much a tool for healing as it is an opportunity for activism.
I was interviewing Héctor for a podcast I’m producing right now about Medellín and the HiperBarrio project. He was in Philadelphia. I was driving from Los Angeles to the Bay Area. And our conversation touched on just about everything and jumped around from one exciting topic to the next. The most frustrating part of making a podcast like this is that you have these amazing hour long conversations and you need to somehow turn them into a five minute collection of soundbytes. Most of what Héctor and I talked about will be cut out, including the two clips below.
Héctor now works in Los Angeles as a psychotherapist and as the leader of ImaginAction, a theater workshop which uses the techniques of Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed for individual and community transformation.
That may sound like a lot of fluffy non-profit talk, but that’s not the sense I got at all during our conversation. It’s tough picturing former gang members from East LA putting on a play about their lives for a bunch of rich kids in Santa Monica, but that’s exactly what ImaginAction has been able to achieve. And the reason that Hector has been so successful is that he doesn’t limit or dictate their creativity.
I happen to be reading a book right now (a self-help book, what of it?) called Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life. It was written by Mihaly Csickszentmihalyi, the former head of the department of psychology at the University of Chicago. It’s all about incorporating Flow Theory into your daily life. Essentially, the idea is that we tend to be the most content when we are deeply engaged with a meaningful challenge.
An entire chapter of the book talks about the dangers of leisure time. That may sound strange. I mean, after all, isn’t leisure time what everyone wants? Sipping mojitos at a beach in Cuba?
Sure, we all want that for a few days, but according to Csickszentmihalyi’s studies (he pages people at random times and asks them what they are doing and how they are feeling), too much leisure time is the fastest path to apathy and depression.
For example, many indigenous people in North America have lost the opportunity to experience flow in work and communal life, and seek to recapture it in leisure activities that mimic the earlier enjoyable lifestyle. Young Navajo men used to feel at their best when riding after their sheep over the mesas of the Southwest, or when participating in week-long ceremonial singing and dancing. Now that such experiences are less relevant, they attempt to recapture flow by drinking alcohol and then racing down the desert highways in souped-up cars. In Saudi Arabia the spoiled young scions of oil barons find riding camels passé, and try to revive their interest by racing brand-new Cadillacs in the trackless desert, or on the sidewalks of Riyadh. When productive activities become too routine and meaningless, leisure will pick up the slack. It will take up progressively more time, and rely on increasingly more elaborate artificial stimulation.
Everyone claims to be bored as a teenager, but growing up in Orange County, the upper- and middle-class kids had opportunities for flow, for that high level of engagement. They would practice with their high school bands after school or they would be focused on winning the soccer tournament or taking care of their horse at the equestrian park. But those types of opportunities that I and all my friends took for granted just don’t exist in lots of neighborhoods around the world including West Oakland and San Javier, Medellin, Colombia.
Every blogger has experienced the state of flow when writing a blog post. There is an idea in our head and we want to turn it into a narrative. We’re completely focused on what we’re doing. We don’t pick up the phone. Sometimes we don’t even eat when we’re hungry because we want to see this post up and published first. We have to pretend that we don’t care about it too much, because caring about blogging just isn’t considered cool. But when we have a finished piece of work – whether it’s an essay or story or YouTube video or even a photograph that we’re proud to put on Flickr – there is a sense of accomplishment and pride. We feel like we’re taking part in something much larger. We’re documenting our lives and the world around us. We’re interacting with others. We’re understanding their lives and helping them understand they’re own. I think that this is at the heart of what Juliana, Jorge, and Alvaro are doing down in Medellin right now. The young people in La Loma are used to daily lives of violence and hustling.
But now, thanks to Medellin’s new Parque Biblioteca system and thanks to the volunteers at HiperBarrio, they’re getting those same opportunities to use their imagination to create and get into the state of flow.
I love the Pollo video: