I attended the Angelica tour’s production of “Hamilton” at the Fisher Theater in Detroit three times in the past three weeks! These thoughts are to help me understand why I was compelled to see it again and again. Musicals aren’t my thing, generally. Most recently, I attended on Saturday night and then again on Tuesday night. Each time I sat in a very different location (high balcony on stage right; back main floor; and down near stage left). Each location offered very different experiences, and allowed clarity about rapid pace, multi-layered musical. There is so much constantly occurring on stage! After the third show, finally I “feel satisfied.” In this essay I am processing and articulating some thoughts and questions emerging from my fascination with “Hamilton”. My obsession surprises me, as I don’t enjoy novels, movies, musicals or theater. These usually feel contrived and manipulative and are
an occupational hazard of being a psychologist, listening to clients’ gripping traumas, addictions, relationships and confusion in real time without any resolution to be known in advance.
Stories hook me. I love my work with clients and I love historical fiction. Of course, both of these are interpretations, manipulating and editing reality so it might be unrecognizable to another person involved in the events. As Lin Manuel Miranda explains in “Hamilton: The Revolution,” we all remember stories with the teller as the hero. Two people reminiscing may tell a completely different narrative of an interaction, because we remember what is important to us as individuals and as a people. For example, what we Americans call “the Revolutionary War” is known as “the Rebellion” by the British!
I am caught by the story arcs of complicated people who have strong personalities and who strive to make a difference and are driven to survive and thrive after a challenging time in their lives. Hamilton is that. Burr is that. Their portrayals in “Hamilton” are sympathetic, honest, and nuanced. These men went through multiple losses and traumas growing up, but their personalities were so different, yielding differing responses to life’s events. Neither one understood the other, due to their opposing natures. They reveal themselves in their unique stories of the same events and interactions. I am curious about the stories they tell themselves about themselves, as well as their family, their times, their loved ones and enemies, just as I am with my clients.
Survival to Thriving
What drives one person to survive and even to thrive, to take clear stands, write prolifically and change the world by creating opportunities, while the other plays it safe in an dangerous world and watch and wait for opportunities but never commits to any guiding principles? What motivates each one? Their hopes, goals, failures, talents, misdeeds, faults and tunnel vision, perceived slights and wounds as well as the physical and emotional wounds stemming from traumatic childhoods fascinate me. How do they tell their own story? How do others tell their story?
Life has a tremendous amount of experienced and perceived trauma in people then and today. With each client, I wonder what is their story arc and their goal; how can I help them meet that goal? I often want more for that client and I want it faster than they do, but I know I need to let therapy unfold at their unique pace. I look for clues as to what motivates them, what is meaningful to them, what is important and a priority. I try to encourage them, which sometimes is met with resistance. Can I sit with their stuck-ness? How can I help them widen their scope to see possibilities? How can I help them envision something different, hopefully better, for their lives? How can I find the emotional connections and the hope in their lives that nourishes them? I try to help them focus on the difference between wants and needs, and how to be honest with themselves, first, and then share their truth.
The “Hamilton” themes that grab me are the myriad ways people strive to survive and what they define as “enough” or “being satisfied” with what they have, who they are and where they are headed. Individually, this is limited by individual circumstances. How do they mesh with others to create or stymie their goals?
As a community working towards the same goal, powerful alliances of shared visions that change the world, for example, Washington and Hamilton as aide-de-camp and after the war. They complement each other’s skills, tag team each other. When one is down, the other is up. As a group such as the Continental Congress, they created an aspirational constitution, declaring ideals that are not yet shared lived experiences. For example, a slave holder wrote “all men are created equal.” In order to create a united nation, and slavery had to be placed on the back burner, which inevitably led to the Civil War, and on to our society’s racial tensions now. That leaves us with a truly impossible question: Do we have to sacrifice our values in order to continue a union? Is the price of the sacrifice worth the flawed union that emerges? How does the individual, how does the group, respond to these decisions? Who has power? How do they use it? How does power change them? How do they respond to the temptations it creates?
The Constitution was flawed, hence the creation of the Bill of Rights, Amendments and the Federalist Papers, trying to make it more flexible and useful in an ever changing society. A group of people then and now are trying to create and preserve what is important to them, and struggle over what their group identity is? Slave or free in an independent country? Fear of financial ruin for individuals (slave holders) and regions (the South) blocking negotiations and pursuing the ideals? Fear of another monarch and too much power in the Federal Government? Fear of Banks dictating who wins and who loses? Opportunity for any and all, as Hamilton experienced as foreigner and social outcast, “a bastard Scotsman, son of a whore?” Or opportunity for those with financial means already secured? Who is in? Who is out? How do you trust your opponents when negotiating the decisions that must be made? How do you respond when you are deceived? How do others respond to you as your goals and position evolve beyond the group? Whose vision is the “right” vision of the country that will prevail? Agrarian continuity? Financial systems to underpin the growth of manufacturing and trade?
And when do we stop fighting? When the British leave? When the slaves are free? When we get universal health care? Can fighting a physical, violent war transform into a peaceful exchange of words and sober negotiation? And, can we move on? Can we forgive, stop nursing old hurts, perceived and actual?
Each of Us
Each person in the country has a unique history and arc of trauma, belonging or not, success or failure, love, hate, ideals and limits. And each person is shaped by their personality, awareness and beliefs, changing by responding to new challenges. How does the chorus of those emerging voices work together or against each other is fascinating history. I’m fascinated in real time as well. A biography or musical is a quick sketch of the salient themes and personalities, but we already know the outcome. There is comfort in knowing that there won’t be any surprises. The surprises come in recognizing ourselves mirrored in those historical figures and in not knowing our outcome. And, somehow, after the outcome arrives, an election is decided by vote of citizens, electoral college, House of Representatives or Supreme Court, we look back, the results seem as though they were inevitable. And yet, we have no idea who will win the next election. Pundits try, but the future is humblingly unknowable.
Just as I cannot predict what turns my clients’ lives will take, neither can I predict how they will respond to new challenges. But I walk a part of their path with them, trying to hold a flashlight in front of them, hoping to illuminate choices I can see they are facing. I try to stay open, supportive, in the choices that lie before them. And remind myself to be gentle with myself on my journey, just as I urge my clients to be gentle on their path. No one has done this before. We have to start somewhere. And there is no right or wrong way to do it, so long as you learn something from whatever way you choose. Then that data will be available to inform your next choice. And there is always a next choice, the universe offering another opportunity to learn the lessons of who we are individually and as a community. Keep open. Keep learning. Keep trying.
Forgiveness is a powerful theme in “Hamilton.” How do we deal with betrayal? How do we respond to those who disappoint us or judge us? In the burn of shame or embarrassment, it is easy to react in anger. Relationships and lives are destroyed. How do we continue to live with ourselves and those who have hurt us? Even if you leave or separate, that hurt and humiliation stays in your heart. Until you find forgiveness. Maybe forgiveness is simply forgiving oneself for overreacting, for anger, for hurting in return. Forgiveness is the active mending of the fabric of relationship. The small words “I’m sorry,” I love you,” “I forgive you,” are the needle and thread that rejoin what was rent apart. Is forgiveness possible? Can the awareness for the need for forgiveness arrive in time? Or like Burr in Hamilton, will it only be in retrospect, realizing that “the world was wide enough for both of us.”
If I am to forgive someone who has deeply harmed me, how does that actually play out? The world might be big enough, but what if the offender is in my house or my family? Those are small worlds and are sometimes it seems a impossible to find enough space. Do I try to create space in my heart? Do I move away, separate? Do I stop communication or set limits? How long do I keep my distance. I know many feelings cool with time, space a good night’s sleep and clear thinking. How do I not set myself up for repeat injuries? How do I keep myself from going a step too far that I will regret? What is authentic for me?
Telling the Stories
The stage production of “Hamilton” so enhances the original soundtrack. Dancers in spare white costumes revealed Hamilton’s or other main characters’ experience and emotions in highly charged events. The supporting cast created a web of interwoven relationships and rivalries brought alive by the rap battles, songs and fast pace. The set and costumes were simple, but conveyed the changing eras and loyalties well. Perhaps the most powerful song for me was Washington singing the final song, “Who Lives Who Dies Who Tells Your Story.”
I support clients as they discover their own truth and shape their futures with honesty. There are now so many ways to tell our stories. The Internet, blogs, vlogs and social media have flooded us with individual stories that were not available in the 18th Century. I watch my transgender clients grow more confident in learning about others’ transitions and documenting their own, unfiltered experiences and engage in dialogue with honest questions and answers. These b/vloggers offer immediate stories and support, or life stories that suggest caution. In my family, stories of ancestors coming to the US, migrating across the country in covered wagons, fighting on both sides of the Civil War and my grandmother braving the Great Depression as a widow with two young children to raise alone provide inspiration for my own struggles with life’s confusing process. Telling our stories and those of people before us, provide a reality check and inspiration. Reality check, because they were far from perfect heroes or villains. In truth, we are all deeply flawed and we have enormous good in us.
Telling our complex stories face-to-face will never be replaced by other media, but “Hamilton” is a medium which spurs deep emotion and pondering about who we are as individuals and as Americans in this unique era. It is a powerful, fun, moving experience that feeds my spirit as a person and as a citizen. What we do, who we are and what we say well matters, today more than ever.