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Frowns, Clowns, and Castanets

On the last day of my recent clown trip to Peru, teams from Gesundheit! Institute (Patch Adams organization) and Bola Roja (the Peruvian hospital clowning and child advocacy organization) met with officials of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) who have supported the Belen Project. In PAHO’s flag-draped conference room in Lima, with TV cameras rolling, its Director, Dr. Manuel Pena, introduced all the panelists, and then showed a short documentary on the Project.

Afterwards, he asked Patch to talk about the clowning work we do. Patch told them a bit about his own story that included adolescent despair and hospitalization. After that experience, Patch vowed he would come to every day from a place of loving-kindness and that he would never again have a bad day. He became a medical doctor whose specialty is treating the most vulnerable in society — those ravaged by war, orphaned, diseased and scarred. His treatment protocol is to touch them as a clown and remind them they are loved and not alone.

Patch told them that Bola Roja is a national treasure and needs support to continue its seminal work. In his inimitable, passionate way, he also spoke of the work still to be done in Belen, and how their clowning connections also includes forming partnerships with local healthcare providers who continue the ongoing work (Municipalidad Belen, Selva Amazonica, La Restinga, and Amazon Promise).

When he finished, a reporter pointedly asked him whether clowning made any difference in helping suffering people heal. She said the recent Peruvian earthquake left tens of thousands of survivors to rebuild their lives. “How does a clown visit change that reality?” she asked. Patch responded by saying if you can connect for even a moment with unconditional love, then you can inspire hope. A clown can relieve another’s isolation by making a one-to-one connection that moves the sufferer beyond their loneliness, even if only for a moment.

The whole panel responded to her question about how clowning can heal. I said that the greatest injuries following the recent quake were not the physical wounds and acute trauma, but rather the emotional ones. A disaster of such proportion, with the loss of families and villages, threatens to steal one’s spirit. The human spirit that propels us forward in the hard times becomes so depleted that it leaves us unable to see beyond the suffering. If a clown can bring a moment’s smile, it sends an instantaneous message from the heart to the brain that we are still human.

I told them of my visit to an AIDS shelter in Iquitos the week before where I saw an emaciated, virtually immobilized, 25-year-old woman in the final stage of the disease. She was lying in a hammock and, as I approached her, she took one look at me in my clown persona and smiled. What she saw was a 6’6” ballerina in a pink tutu and flamingo hat playing castanets and dancing the Flamenco. One really can’t help but smile at the visage, and as I got closer the smile became a giggle. I bent over, picked up her hands and placed them on the Flamingos legs that dangled from the hat and danced in front of her. Now the giggles became a laugh and, in that moment, we felt each other’s heart beating.

You don’t have to speak another’s language to touch their spirit; it is in these moments that the heart swells and you feel a loving kindness and compassion that is bigger than yourself. It is in those moments, when souls meet, that we know we are complete. It is in those moments that clowns heal others and themselves.

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Dr. Carl A. Hammerschlag, M.D., CPAE is a psychiatrist, author, and professional keynote speaker. He is an authority in the science of psychoneuroimmunology mind, body, spirit medicine and speaks about health and wellness, healing, leadership and authenticity . He has delivered motivational keynote speeches to corporate and business clients around the world.