In a recent interview, Heaney said he was often asked what the value of poetry was during times of economic recession. The answer, he explained, is that it is at just such moments of crisis that people realize that they do not live by economics alone. “If poetry and the arts do anything, they can fortify your inner life, your inwardness,” Heaney said.
...an effort to “fortify your inward side,” Heaney explained to another questioner, can act as a kind of “immune system” against material difficulties.
One of the times that Aidan went to San Francisco for a month (to treat bile duct problems) and I was with him, I found a tiny Orthodox storefront barely visible between, I think a new -age shop with crystals and dragons, and a Goth-style clothes store.
Walking in there off the busy SF street, the hush closed around me like a blanket. There was some kind of Byzantine chant playing in the background and I could smell incense. Icons were all around.
Anyway, I picked up a book called "Fine Arts as Therapy" by Constantine Cavarnos. It turned out to be a treasure, though somewhat different than what I expected when I bought it. The subtitle is "Plato's Teachings Organized and Discussed".
He says that to Plato, "music" (a broader term in Greek education that included poetry and literature as well as music proper)
"is concerned with the soul, with its care, harmonious development and purification from every defect or evil. It seeks not only to develop properly the potentialities of the soul, but also to prevent disorders or defects from arising in it, and to correct any that may be present."
"In their true form, the fine arts constitute an important kind of education. Their aim... is the harmonious development of man, the promotion of health of body and soul. They are intended both as ways of preventing disease or deformations of soul and body, of remedying those that have arisen, and also of developming man's higher potentialities."
That stay in San Francisco was quite stressful since I was worried about Aidan and also worried about how long they would keep him there (I remember one doctor proposing blithely in August that they keep him for another month to monitor him -- I flipped, since September was approaching and I was thinking about my poor kids at home with their dad and the school year starting!)
I took up my old hobbies of calligraphy -- mostly of poetry, prayers and scripture -- and origami during that time, and also made a habit of nature study out in the courtyard in the middle of the hospital. My father sent me tapes of classical music (Vivaldi, Corelli, Mozart, etc) and Aidan and I listened to them over and over again, along with a tape of Irish harp music. The music not only soothed Aidan and myself, but it was surprising what an impact it made upon the doctors and nurses who were constantly entering the room. They usually slowed down and became just slightly more ceremonious and one nurse once breathed a sigh of relief and said "this room is SO relaxing to come into!"
I think these fine arts, poetry and music among them, provide the contemplative space that a soul needs to flourish and become itself -- so often especially when times are hard it's easy to compress our spirit into a tiny compartment so we can more conveniently go about the day. Having that peculiar combination of endless time and high stress at the hospital taught me the lesson about the therapeutic importance of the things of the spirit.