When Hamilton premiered on stage almost 5 years ago, it became a reminder and rallying cry for so many themes, among them the power of immigrants and women and the significance of hope. As coronavirus cases rise across the United States, and hospital capacities are threatened, it feels like there is no clear end in sight. In fact, it feels like in this country cases are rising when they should be falling the way they are in other parts of the world. It seems like we are going in the wrong direction, and perhaps like we need to socially distance indefinitely. This leads many to feel frustrated, angry, and above all, hopeless.
This hopelessness is particularly palpable among healthcare workers who are directly facing the barrage of cases. During the Covid-19 surge in New York, the public worried about the very real risk to healthcare workers’ safety, whether frontline workers would get Covid-19, or survive and have lasting mental health consequences. But, we also thought the surge would end and these workers would get a break to finally take care of themselves. The predictions were right in that some surges ended, but in Arizona, Texas, and Florida cases have only worsened, and California is seeing a resurgence of the virus as well. As the numbers rise, one has to wonder how long healthcare workers can keep up the days of no sleep, high adrenaline, and emotional and physical drain.
Hope matters so much in this moment. Research tells us that hopeful individuals are less reactive to stress and can often manage and overcome it easier. In other words, without hope, we are at risk of burnout, or of losing a nonrenewable resource—the very humans who are on the frontlines of the pandemic.
Despite the rising Covid-19 case numbers, social media timelines of healthcare professionals started looking different the evening of July 2nd. People were singing, smiling, and sharing memories of past good times.
The common link?
Hamilton (#Hamilfilm) on Disney Plus. Witnessing the sudden shift in emotion and renewed sense of collective joy, one has to wonder, could the film be just what this country, and healthcare workers in particular, need? Can it provide a little ray of hope to get us through the difficult times ahead, inspiring us with stories of our history and what those before us have survived?
To quote lyrics from the song Hurricane,
In the eye of a hurricane
There is quiet
For just a moment
A yellow sky
Dr. Eve Bloomgarden, Assistant Professor of Endocrinology at Northwestern University and co-founder and chief development officer of Impact, who has seen the show three or four times before the release on Disney Plus believes that Hamilton speaks to so much of what we are all going through right now. She explains, “It shows us that knowledge is power, that in order to change the game or change the roles we need to write a new playbook, and that despite all odds, with enough determination, skill, and perseverance, you can start a revolution and actually change the world.” Dr. Arghavan Salles, Scholar in Residence at Stanford University School of Medicine, adds that the character of Hamilton himself had to exhibit significant courage to succeed despite all of the obstacles in his way, like fighting in a war, sabotage, and being an orphan. She says, “What we all need to conjure in this moment, in a time when we all want desperately for life to return to ‘normal,’ is that kind of grit.” Hamilton, according to Dr. Bloomgarden, also reminds us that so many before us have put themselves on the line for what they believe in. Right now, we are facing the challenges of Covid-19 and needless deaths due to racism in this country and are suffering through “the pain of going through the unimaginable.” Watching Hamilton may help us know that we will get through it, too.
For Dr. Avital O’Glasser, Associate Professor of Medicine at Oregon Health and Science University, Hamilton resonates because it empowers voices we often don’t hear from, like immigrants, people of color, and women. She notes, “the recurring refrains of ‘who tells our story” and ‘being a part of the narrative’ are a source of hope for me in these times when medicine is so frequently challenged, distrusted, or politicized.” She says, like Eliza in the finale, she and her colleagues are putting themselves back in the narrative through advocacy and education. She concludes, “Hamilton gives me hope that we can use our voices to save lives.”
This musical also teaches all of us how to mourn and grow from mourning. In this moment of collective grief as a nation, we have not had time to heal and that, too, has led to some of the loss of hope. In It’s Quiet Uptown, after the (spoiler alert) death of their son, Alexander and Eliza Hamilton move away to grieve the loss. The song starts,
There are moments that the words don’t reach
There is suffering too terrible to name
You hold your child as tight as you can
And push away the unimaginable
The moments when you’re in so deep
It feels easier to just swim down
In these scenes, you feel the grief and despair along with the characters, and with each line sung by the chorus you watch their grief evolve. They sing “learn to live with the unimaginable” … “he is working through the unimaginable”… “they are trying to do the unimaginable”… “they are going through the unimaginable.” By the end of the song, they cope together, holding hands. Most of us don’t even know what grief looks like in the time of social distancing. We do know, however, that it is pervasive.
Dr. Shoshana Ungerleider, founder of endwellproject.org and leader in the movement to make the end of life more human-centered, believes that we are all experiencing grief to some degree now, even if we haven’t lost or won’t lose a family member or close friend. She explains, “We are also grieving the loss of a life we once knew, and one we hoped to live. I think we’ll need to build a whole new vocabulary going forward from Covid-19 to talk about the societal experience of mourning, even for people we’ve never met.”
To that point, Dr. Stephanie Zerwas, Associate Professor at UNC Psychiatry and Psychologist at Flourish Chapel Hill adds, “It’s by honoring the grief and sadness that we feel right now that we can look for ways that things can change. The virus has irrevocably changed our world.” She goes on to say that although this isn’t what any of us had expected, we know the future will look very different. Hope, or imagining what can be, even in the darkest days, can act as a source of comfort.
While it may be just another movie to some, or overblown hype to others, it may also be just what healthcare professionals, but really all of us, truly need right now. We need to find joy in the narrative, and the hope that is missing. We need to process all of our collective grief and the anticipatory grief for what comes next. We need to think about the underdog still persevering against all odds, particularly when that underdog represents groups who don’t usually have their voices heard and yet represent so many. We also need to remember that history has its eyes on us and come together on this Fourth of July, united, with our #masksup.