To feel healthy and whole, we all strive to affirm our identity, whether in our cultural origins, our race and ethnicity, or our careers and family roles. When we lose our identity, we believe that we lose ourselves. But a short film called “Drawing Freedom” powerfully illustrates how a man who seemingly loses everything is able to regain his feeling of personal value by responding to the call of art within him, a call to sketch what he needs most—hands to reach out and touch. In prison, Jaiquan creates a daily arts practice, which he then takes with him onto the subways of Brooklyn, New York.

Jaiquan’s transformational journey of inner liberation within prison solitary confinement, is vividly documented as part of TakeCare, a national initiative that offers tools to help people improve their own health and well-being through messages embedded in inspirational short films. As the son of a struggling mother and an incarcerated father, Jaiquan felt his own incarceration made him invaluable. His imagination for something beyond his past seemed shattered, until he picked up a pad and a pen. His sketches of hands and then faces eventually blossomed into sophisticated artwork that he says “changed my life, and made me feel valuable,” and able to TakeCare.

In today’s uncertain environment, many of us may be searching for a way to find our essence and regain a sense of value. As Jaiquan shows, it can happen using only simple tools that we all have at our disposal. Here are some ways to rediscover what we may be missing.

Find Out What Brings Out Your Imagination

We are creative beings. Creative expression helps us to make sense of our experiences and find meaning in life. For Jaiquan, sketching wasn’t just about having a talent for drawing. His sketches of hands and faces became his own “art therapy” – a way to connect with others when he felt isolated and, more importantly, a way to feel his own value. His imagination contained the inner resources he needed to meet his basic need for love and belonging even in solitary confinement.

When we engage in the creative process, it affirms our humanity. We can all find a form of expression that speaks to us. We just have to discover it. Start with what draws out the imagination. Is it noticing the millions of colors found in the world? Is it taking in the way the trees move through the wind? Is it observing how people interact with one another? We need to find out what we are naturally curious about and then explore it, perhaps using a creative form such as photography or painting or film or music. A person may discover meaning and purpose that they haven’t felt before.

Use What You Have

Jaiquan shows us that we only need a few simple tools to start. Once we choose our focus, we may need only a sketch pad for drawing or a notebook for writing. Or even a smart phone with a high-quality camera to capture whatever we are drawn to. It doesn’t require expensive equipment or classes with an instructor. Just start with what we already have. The greatest tool that we need lies within – our attention and imagination.

Take Time to Reflect

We may struggle at first to find something that speaks to us, but we should give ourselves time and space. In our daily lives, many of us are busy, distracted, and constantly multi-tasking. We are planning for the future or reliving the past. This way of living, dulls our senses and constricts our attention. I encourage everyone to spend some time out in nature or to go for a walk and just “be present.” Open your senses – What do you see? What do you feel? If this isn’t your thing, spend some time meditating. Just sit quietly for 10 minutes and focus on the breath. Close your eyes. What do you notice? Allow your thoughts to come and go, without any judgment. When we sit quietly or walk attentively in nature and feel safe, we signal our nervous system to relax. From this place, our mind and hearts can begin to open to things around us that we may never have noticed before. This kind of reflection just might lead us to that essence we are seeking.

A 13th century Persian poet known as Rumi once said, “Where there is ruin, there is hope for a treasure.” Jaiquan’s story is a beautiful example of the essence that remains when everything is stripped away. Today, if we are experiencing the feeling of our own identities and roles being stripped away, we should take this time to reflect and express. Use what we have and give form to the feelings within. Art and creativity are not about making something beautiful but about expressing something true and real. Our essence is that unique spirit in ourselves. It’s what makes us special, and it’s our gift that we bring to the earth. It is our most important job to find out what gift is ours alone to share and to work to bring it to the world. Our people and planet are waiting.  

Melia Snyder, PH.D., LPC, REAT is an advisor on the film, Drawing Freedom, as a part of The Healthy US Collaborative’s TakeCare initiative. She is also the education director and a clinical therapist with Open Sky Wilderness Therapy.