Somava Saha, MD, MS (aka Soma Stout) has dedicated her career to improving health, wellbeing and equity through the development of thriving people, organizations and communities. She has worked as a primary care internist and pediatrician in the safety net and a global public health practitioner for over 20 years. Currently, Soma serves as Founder and Executive Lead of Well-being and Equity in the World (WE in the World), as well as Executive Lead of the Well Being In the Nation (WIN) Network, which work together to advance inter-generational well-being and equity. She serve as faculty at Harvard Medical School, the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, and the Governance Institute.
Over the last five years, as Vice President at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, Dr. Saha founded and led the 100 Million Healthier Lives (100MLives) initiative, which brought together 1850+ partners in 30+ countries reaching more than 500 million people to improve health, wellbeing and equity. The partners in 100 Million Healthier Lives collectively improved over 740 million lives and the initiative identified over 40 global bright spots that achieved 50% or better results than expected. WE in the World continues to advance and scale the frameworks, tools, and outcomes from this initiative as a core implementation partner in 100MLives.
Previously, Dr. Saha served as Vice President of Patient Centered Medical Home Development at Cambridge Health Alliance, where she co-led a transformation that improved health outcomes for a safety net population above the national 90th percentile, improved joy and meaning of work for the workforce, and reduced medical expense by 10%. She served as President of the Medical Staff of Cambridge Health Alliance, as well as founding Medical Director of the CHA Revere Family Health Center and the Whidden Hospitalist Service, leading to substantial improvements in access, experience, quality and cost for safety net patients.
In 2012, Dr. Saha was recognized as one of ten inaugural Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Young Leaders for her contributions to improving the health of the nation. She has consulted with leaders from across the world, including Guyana, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Singapore, Australia, Tunisia, Denmark and Brazil. She has appeared on a panel with the Dalai Lama, keynoted conferences around the world, and had her work featured on Sanjay Gupta, the Katie Couric Show, PBS and CNN. In 2016 she was elected as a Leading Causes of Life Global Fellow.
Lauren Gunderson is a playwright, screenwriter and short story author from Atlanta, GA. She received her BA in English/Creative Writing at Emory University, and her MFA in Dramatic Writing at NYU Tisch, where she was also a Reynolds Fellow in Social Entrepreneurship. She was named the most produced playwright in America by American Theatre Magazine in 2017 and 2019, was awarded the 2016 Lanford Wilson Award from the Dramatist Guild, the 2016 Otis Gurnsey Award for Emerging Writer, and was awarded the prestigious 2014 and 2018 Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award for her play, I and You (also a Susan Smith Blackburn Blackburn and John Gassner Award finalist) and The Book of Will. That play was an NNPN Rolling World Premiere that started at Marin Theatre Company and has seen over 40 productions nationwide. She is also a recipient of the Mellon Foundation’s 3-Year Residency with Marin Theatre Company.
Interview by Gary Gunderson
Gary Gunderson: Let’s start with Lauren because I’ve known her the longest. Lauren’s a playwright and from very, very early on has been especially attentive to language and to narrative. In her very earliest writing, it was very striking how she got the narrative right. The people sounded like people when they were in even the very earliest plays that she wrote. But for this purpose, she’s a playwright. She’s married to a virologist. Many of the characters in most of her plays are strong women of science, and to a shocking degree, if you looked on the websites behind each of her plays to supporting intellectual framework behind the play, you’ll see that the science is pretty accurate and pretty good.
So, she does real research in order to bring the drama often of women of science to view. Everything I just said about Lauren is true of Soma although almost in the opposite way, so a, no kidding, physician raised in India by a mother who was determined that she would get the mathematics, be a master of the craft of the hard work of mathematics, and later, the hard work of science. Soma’s a pediatrician and has a mother’s heart and a pediatrician’s eyes for the lifespan of health, and that’s just a gorgeous body of work. A technician in how to actually do the business of healthcare turned around Cambridge Health in a stunning story that’s still looked as a case study of how to turn around a business of healthcare.
In recent years, we’ve worked very closely together, Stakeholder Health, and TC, and Soma and hundreds of others have been part of a large body of work that really is the movement of health in our time. So, it has a brand name and a grant, “100 Million Healthier Lives,” and now, “WE in the World.” But the fact is Soma has taught us a model that says that the movement of health is a movement with hundreds and hundreds and thousands of heroes in this moment. We’re talking in this particular moment, and as the COVID crisis is peaking, and we’ve called this the greatest drama of our time, public health in pandemic.
And of course, the phrase “the center holds,” comes from William Butler Yeats in which he said, “The center cannot hold,” and Gene Matthews, the lead of the Public Health Law Network, told the story of being in the basement of the CDC during an earlier post-9/11 catastrophe in which he said to the public health leaders, “The center must hold, and we are the center. An anarchy has more to fear from us because we have science. We have values. We have each other.” Well, today, the public health heroes involve more than those who have jobs in public health structure.
So, I’m interested in this conversation, being about the heroic drama of public health leadership, but Soma, you understand and to build a movement that includes public health, includes data, includes the science, includes the medical industry, and all of that structure but sees it in a broader fashion. So, the great drama today is one with many more people playing leadership roles in the work of the health of the public amid pandemic. So, I’m going to stop there and see… Soma, first, I’ll open it for you. Do you recognize yourself in the way I’ve described you? Then I want Lauren to do the same.
Soma Saha: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Well, first of all, it’s such a privileged to be in this conversation with you. I was listening to the podcast that came right before, and I’ve heard so much about you, Lauren, and Gary over the years, and in TC that it’s a special privilege to be in this conversation with you today. So I actually am an internist and a pediatrician, Gary, so the running joke in my practice was, “I’d meet you before you were born, and I’d get to be with you and your parents and their parents and sometimes their parents for the rest of their lives.”
When you see and care for people in the safety net, you get to see how resilience builds over generations. You get to see how it’s lost over generations, and it’s so apparent whether you’re doing that, and I think actually public health has framed even more broadly in the global context and communities around the world who have always known that teachers were public health, that the delivery person who was bringing the vaccines over was public health, and that community members had to play a critical role in public health. Farmers had to be present to assure public health.
I think we’re just in this country where we’ve had the privilege of having that central public health structure. Part of what we’re learning is how to build that strong center but also that strong community around it that owns public health together. This is National Public Health Week, so for me, it’s such a moment to celebrate the evolving role of public health, not just as a centralized force, which we’re seeing of course in terms of the incredible leadership of the CDC and the World Health Organization and others in the context of an infectious pandemic, but also in the way in which not just public health leaders but schoolteachers and food banks and community members and neighbors are engaging in the health and wellbeing of the public in community.
As we have gone on this journey, that understanding of how our health and wellbeing are deeply interconnected has both led to a shift in how public health leaders see themselves. The professional ones in the context of community as being weavers of those who need to be accountable, but also what we saw in 100 Million was the growing of what we called communities of solutions. Communities where that the health and wellbeing of the public was owned so deeply by many that what we’ve seen in the context of this crisis, for instance, is the school in rural Wisconsin and in Algoma, that, at the same time immediately took its relationships and its connections to begin to say, “We already know what kids don’t have… are poor and would be struggling, who won’t have access to the internet to continue their education. How do we connect with the business leaders who are also part of our health and wellbeing workforce to get internet hotspots to those families?”
“How can the wider community immediately be mobilized to make sure that food is delivered to those families? And how can the kids that are growing up be seen as leaders in this movement and how do we take this thing that we have a school that no one is attending, which had a cradle to career vocational workshop to make sure kids graduate and are connected to careers, which by the way is one of the best predictors of the long-term health of someone? How can we turn some of those workshops into places to make PPE for our healthcare workers who are friends?”
I think it’s the way in which the communities that have built that capacity to own the health of the public and the wellbeing of the public to see it as interconnected that can then build and on those assets and have a whole community of heroes. Those are the communities that we’re seeing are the most abundant and resilient in this moment in time.
Lauren Gunderson: How interesting. I’m so struck by what you’re saying, this, the community taking ownership of their future collectively, and certainly, in a time like this. I, as a theater person, am struck by what theater people respond to most swiftly, which is applause. And the outpouring of applause in Italy and New York. Every night in New York City, people go on their balconies and applaud the medical workers, and it makes me cry even thinking about it because it is such a simple human activity to say, “Thank you. We’re in this together. We see you. You are artists and athletes and geniuses at what you do.”
This is a we, not a you. And then again, that’s just the theater person’s version of that, but to see it across the world, people using that simple gesture to materialize what you’re saying, which is that the more that we can be active and agile and collective in our sense of what’s next and how do we get there. Oh, it’s so meaningful, and in many ways, it’s the dark times that can lift up the best ideas. So, I hope that what we’re learning now is something we can keep going, keep thinking that way.
Gary Gunderson: So, let me suggest two bounces in the conversation. Soma, I want you and Lauren to talk about the role of a mature but still young leader in a dramatic field and in your relationship to the young in the field, and both you and Lauren have poured yourself into that, and then the second step I want to make is this notion of applauding the right thing, and I want to link applause to data. Much of your most recent profound work has been in creating a common mind among dozens and dozens of major organizations about what is worth keeping track of in this moment.
So, let’s do that second, but first, I want you, Lauren, to connect the point of your vision for raising up the generation of voices of craftspeople for this community, Art of Health.
Soma Saha: Well, if you believe it takes a community, you better get started building one. If you believe in the abundance and nobility of everyone, suddenly heroes aren’t these rare things. They can be everywhere, and if you truly believe that the process of releasing equity is about releasing the untold potential for nobility and heroism that exists in every person, then suddenly what you create is a positive spiral of abundance.
So, to me, investing in the next generation whether it’s all the way from kids in high school on who… As I’ve asked, charged them to pay it forward, they’ve then gotten the kids in elementary school on all the way up to the current people who are leaders in their sectors across the field is this callback to what generative and abundant leadership looks like in a way where we realize how much more we have together, in a way that grows others to be leaders. Because that’s actually the only way we can begin to actually change the world.
I think it’s knowing that not particularly worrying about being a hero yourself and trusting in the capacity of not just of others to lead but in the gifts that they have that might far surpass your ability to see, and trusting in a process of accompaniment and capacity unleashing. I think what we’ve seen is that the communities we had the privilege of investing in are absolute leaders in their regions now and are here now to help not just us lead but just to lead.
I think having hundreds of people who are ready to lead across the entire world is exactly who we need now.The number of calls I’ve gotten from so many of them, just feeling profoundly grateful even in the midst of enormous financial strain or others for having invested in that capacity to lead together and to know how to create these changes together because it helps them feel more prepared, more ready to help others. So, to me, that’s the only way to create real sustainable change.
Gary Gunderson: So, Lauren, hearing this in between these Zooms with about public health leaders, you’re leading hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of emerging playwrights to learn the craft of playwriting in during the pandemic in real time. Is there any resonance between the energy that you feel in those learning/teaching experiences and what Soma is describing?
Lauren Gunderson: Yes, I think for the parts which do take a backseat in times of crisis because of the obvious—because we need to focus the outpouring of support and resources on those people on the ground. I mean, doctors, all sorts of medical staff, and in this case, it’s delivery people and people in grocery stores and people making PPE. So, it’s easy to say, “All right. Let’s not talk about the arts. They don’t need our help right now.” But so quickly you see that what you turn to in times of crisis, if you are not one of those essential workers is the arts, is story, is music, is a belief that human beings are more than just body that they are soul and culture and the lift of all things inspirational whether that’s poetry or a song or story. That human beings are “contain multitudes,” to quote my favorite poet Walt Whitman. And part of what that reminds me is that that’s why it takes a community, that’s why Soma is so right.
What you’re building with the community is lifting up people’s talents in all different ways to make the globe that is a satisfying, profound, connected, meaningful life, and that when the body is failing, of course, we tend to the body. But the body is so connected to the thoughts and hearts and hopes and love. So that’s why the stuff of storytelling are those big things because we need constant buttressing of purpose and meaning.
So, I think of both of those. As I get to create community online in the way that I accidentally started doing with these playwriting classes, it has turned less into something, the goal of which would be to create an army of playwrights for the future, which sure, that would be wonderful, but more what it is is a place to talk about a thing we love, the thing we believe in, the thing we know is going to come back after this, which is theater. I think there are opera groups out there doing this for opera. There are blues and jazz groups. There are poetry groups. There are all manner of people finding each other in any way they can right now to say, “I know we will be at a concert soon. I know we’ll be at a play soon. I know I will get to applaud those people on a stage and say, “Thank you for the art that you are giving and making because it completes me and my human experience.”
So, I do think it is similar. The word we keep coming back to as, we should, is community, community, community. It’s congregation. It’s collectivity. That’s what citizenship is is a collective and whether that is a collective that is finally starting to see how interconnected we are, and one person’s health is another person’s health, and whether that is someone going, “Wow. I so miss the gathering of going to a theater and seeing a story together sitting next to somebody I don’t know and laughing and learning right next to each other.” All of those things belong in this, and yet, the thing that that brings them together is a collectivity, is a sense of that humans are not meant to live alone.
We cannot do it. We can’t survive it. We can’t survive it medically and spiritually and artistically. All of those things are speaking to each other. So I think in terms of thinking about what and who is coming next, it is opening that conversation wide and saying, “What can we do for you? Welcome. We want you to know that you’re a part of us, and I’m a part of you.” And again, whether if that’s talking about dramatic structure to a bunch of theater nerds online or making it very clear to be aware that our neighbors’ health is our own, I think it’s the same process of learning and recognition behind both.
Soma Saha: I would say it’s not even that they’re needed after, like people need it now. So, we’ve been integrating poetry and music and art into every one of our meetings and trainings because that’s the only way to sustain soul and spirit. When I hear and invite people to share what’s keeping them resilient, it’s their choir groups that they’ve joined online or things like that in, and that recognition that our mental, physical, social, and spiritual wellbeing are deeply connected, and that I’m connected to being in community around those things and art, as a facilitator of those, as well as a way to reflect.
For us, we’ve used a lot of theater as a third thing or poetry as a third thing to help us reflect something that that can help us make sense of our experience. I think it’s needed now, and it’s going to be even more needed as we begin to go from acute crisis to a sustained pandemic response. I’m so encouraged to know that there are playwrights writing, and I’d love to think about how sustaining artists can be part of how we sustain and build community because I think they’re going to be deeply needed.
Gary, I know you were trying to give me a softball to talk about measures, and I guess I can connect it in here, if you’d like.
Gary Gunderson: Well, why don’t you do that? The bridge for me between what Lauren was talking about raising up playwrights and in your work and data. When Lauren was a high school kid, she went and sought out and had developed a relationship with Maggie Edson who at that time would just receive Pulitzer for writing “Wit.” And Maggie, an extraordinary teacher with a teacher’s eye for young talent, took Lauren’s draft of her play, and when they went over to have tea on Maggie’s porch, Maggie gave Lauren a stack of grammar books and saying, “Amazing talent. Great voice. Use the grammar books.” That’s the link I make with your development.
What you’ve actually put in the hands of thousands of youth is the tools of accurate data and how to do that. In fact, they are public health grammar books. So, that was actually part of what I saw, and both of you have had the experience of being developed as a very young talent by others who saw who you were and who you were going to be, and that’s what you’re both doing in your lives right now. So, follow that thread into your very current work. I mean, we will be a different nation in 2030 precisely because of the collective leadership that you’ve been part of and giving us a new framework about what to measure, what to keep track of, what does it mean to be a healthy, free people?
Soma Saha: So, to me, we can’t construct our world around whole people and whole communities if we don’t see that. And one way of seeing is through our data. So, when I think about measures, I think of how measures can be catalytic in helping people see the world as it could be, to see what’s invisible in what they’re doing. So much of healthcare and even public health data has tended in the past to focus on either things we’re doing to or for people in terms of direct delivery of services and sometimes fail to ask, “What does this person know about themselves? How do we understand their mental physical, social, and spiritual wellbeing and how do those things relate to the vital conditions that everybody needs to thrive that connects all of us and the legacies of whether it’s a racism or of classism or other inequities that lead to a particular configuration of them?”
Right now, most of that is beneath the surface because we’ve been trained just to look at, “Here’s what I can do for you.” And their ability to shift from that to, “Who is this person in their wholeness? What do they know about themselves? How do we understand their sense of purpose, their sense of social connection and support, their sense of economic security and their sense of their own health and mental health?” What we’ve been able to do with an incredible team of not just researchers but others is demonstrate and then get consensus across sectors that, actually, these ways of knowing are just as or more valid than something out of your blood.
I don’t mean to diminish the things we know from our blood that some of those are very useful too, but at some of the most valid and powerful measures we have have to do with what we understand about our own wellbeing. Because it turns out we know a lot about ourselves. If we can trust that, what we’ve been able to show is that relates to things like morbidity, like how well people will live, how healthy they’ll be, how long they’ll live, and how much they’ll cost, how much they’ll be productive. But more importantly, in the context of coronavirus, the things that it turns out drives mortality as how connected are people, not just in the context of carnivores but even in general.
Whether we’re socially connected or not and who we’re connected with is as important as smoking for most people’s health outcomes. Our sense of purpose and meaning drives how long we’ll live. As older adults lose that sense of purpose and meaning, their chance of dying goes up by six-fold—much more than most of what I’m doing in my primary care office taking something out of someone’s blood. Right now, all of those other ways of supporting people are invisible to us, and certainly, how are you doing in terms of your economic security?
What we’ve been able to do in the context of this pandemic in places like Delaware and Texas is give people, say, five questions to ask that quickly help them see what’s invisible, what might really be going on for someone and to engage in a more generative conversation about what could be of help to them. That shifts the relationship between the person who’s asking and the person who’s giving to one of… creating those solutions together and then being able to redesign the system to believe that we can give that to them.
Lauren Gunderson: I love what you’re saying. It reminds me of when I first started to understand, Dad, your “Leading Causes of Life” that have meant so much to me as I think about what I do in the world, and one of the leading causes being coherence… Feel free to interrupt me at any time, Dad, and corrects me because you actually wrote the book, not me.
Gary Gunderson: Yeah, not going to happen.
Lauren Gunderson: But the coherence, and it pings my ear what you were saying, Soma, about when you lose your sense of purpose, you lose your life, and it’s how important story is for that to feel that you are a part, that your story matters, that you are a part of someone else’s story, that you are part of a bigger story than your own that your story is connected to other stories. That’s part of what that meaning is to me and offering a story that someone can connect to. Even if it’s not their own personal story, the whole point of theater is for an audience to go at some point, “Oh, I do that too,” or, “I know somebody like that,” or, “Oh man, I’ve totally been there,” or, “Oh my gosh. What would I do if that were me?”
It is all about saying, “You are in this too, and we want you to bring what and who you are to this story. You complete this story with your thinking about it,” and that sense of having coherence in your life and meaning and purpose connect so much to what the arts are all trying to do and especially storytellers, and that can be this two-way street between those who are saying, “Health is a holistic category,” and it’s incredibly meaningful now.
I will say I think a lot of the particular pain of some of my fellow writers and creatives now is that we don’t feel like we know the coherence yet. We don’t know what this is right now, and it is strange and painful and confusing for writers to go, “When we’re in the middle of something, we actually don’t do very good work. It’s after when we can look back and say, ‘What was that? What was going on in my heart and my head? How do we unpack this? What does it become later?'”
But for writers, and myself included, now, I’m not actually writing very much new stuff. I’m talking a lot. I’m talking to a lot of people. I’m talking about theater. I’m talking about why theater and the arts matter so much and what I miss about it and what I love about it and what I see reflected in various other sectors of society right now, like the applause for the doctors, but I don’t know what the story of this time will be yet because we’re in it.
So the artist turns from being the producer of a story into the witness of what’s going on and being able to sit back and say, “If all the art I did today was ask somebody how they’re doing and what they’re thinking about and just think, “My god. I am so glad there are incredible medical workers out there, and I’m so grateful for the Amazon delivery guy.” All of these new thoughts and deeper thoughts and things, cataloging those thoughts and sitting with them, and again, just being a witness and acknowledging what’s going on is part of the artists’ work and in search of coherence and in search of that meaning.
Soma Saha: Yeah, I have to say so much of what we’ve really leaned into in the Wellbeing of the Nation Network has been about certainly looking at the data but actually creating the coherence between what happened… and the coherence not just at the system level and the story of that as well as the coherence at that and how that shows up in a person’s life. We have this process in our work called stories to system change where we take away a person’s story and invite us to think about what happened to Joe who is a 45-year-old guy who had a hard life but was working at the rental car agency at the airport, and suddenly, that agency, people aren’t traveling anymore, and he’s lost his job.
He’d been stable in his addictions but has had to give up his apartment and move in with someone. How do we understand simple stories and from simple stories, understand how something like the virus, a medical thing is affecting the way in which our society is playing out and showing up again in medical ways in his life in terms of his mental health and addictions but also in all the social ways and how are these things actually interconnected?
So, I think one of the challenges we have is we tell the story that all of these things are separate things, and then we organize society that way. But in fact what the story that the pandemic makes clear is that that is a complete fallacy. We’ve known that if you looked at chronic disease and how that develops from untreated poverty. We’ve known that in the data in many ways, but suddenly, many, many more people are able to see themselves in this story because they’re seeing a part and feeling a part of that experience.
In this moment, our ability to not only tell the broader story and show it in the data but also to tell the stories of how it’s showing up in people’s lives, how it’s showing up in communities, and how it shows up when it can be different. That feels like some of the most powerful work that we can be doing is that storytelling, It’s what we’re doing I think as fast as we can and with hundreds of people in the front lines. We’re in relationship with people.
Gary Gunderson: What both of you are modeling in this moment is, in one sense, Lauren’s like a lock to get a Pulitzer. She keeps on typing, and-
Lauren Gunderson: Oh, Dad, you’re…
Gary Gunderson: … no way Soma’s not going to be surgeon general once we have a government. But what you’ve done and in the way you both described what you value in your own work is actually to direct away from yourselves onto a cast of many, many, many thousands of people. In public health week, that seems to be the most dramatic story we can tell. Public health is a field of people who for the most part work hard at not even being angry because they play such a long game of public health. So, they’re very careful. The story with Leah Devlin in our last podcast was all about when I asked her what she did with her rage as a public health person who saw how much suffering could be prevented. “Does that not enrage you?” She basically said, “I’m a public health professional. I can’t afford rage.”
So, this is a field of people who aren’t even afraid to be naturally angry in public. But they’re the heroes of this moment. So, talk a little bit about… I’m just underlining what you’ve already been talking about, but it seems like such the story of this moment that the cast that are on the stage are mostly people who don’t even think they’re on a stage.
Soma Saha: It’s so funny. I think public health is made up of doers. But I remember from an earlier podcast, with Burris, the ones who stayed and just got the job done, and they were from not just professional folks but from businesses and community with people who stayed to get the job done with that commitment to making sure everyone is able to do that. When I think about resilience, I applaud every person in public health who is working in the front lines today—whether they are a community health worker who is visiting people and making sure they’re okay, whether that’s somebody working at the back office data and be to make sure everyone has the just-in-time data and tools they need, whether they’re a provider in a hospital or clinic or a mental health clinician, or whether they’re somebody planning the resources that are needed.
I applaud all the people who are in the broader business of public health, businesses that are doing heroic things to change and stabilize their employees or schools that are making sure all their kids are doing okay.
The other part that I would say is when I think about the most resilient people, I think of community residents and communities of color who, when we look at our wellbeing data, they are by far… It’s people who are African-American and Hispanics who are some of the most resilient people in the country if you actually look at the data. If you look at this pandemic through the lens of race and racism, what we find is that 70 percent of people who are dying are African-American in many places. And if you look at the data, we know that it’s lifetime exposure to air pollution, which is in the same places where there are black and brown communities that have been racially segregated who are the ones who are dying. There’s this huge correlation between that and coronavirus deaths.
The doctors can try to fix some of that after the fact, but I would say they’re the last hero. The real hero to me are people who have persevered or who are working in communities of color to… not to sustain hope to build resilience. It’s people with lived experience who are hosting dance parties and other things in the midst of all of this to keep that sense of community going. I heard a woman leader of color yesterday, Lena Hatchett, said, “Could we at least give voice to the dying even if that’s all we can do to make sure that people at least have that sense of agency?”
Just think about how much heroism it takes to conceive of the fact that so many people in your community might die and yet, what can we do in the context of that? So, to me, that’s true resilience. Those are the heroes that we ought to also be standing on the balconies applauding. I say that as a doctor who I’m so grateful to all of my colleagues who are working in the ICUs and the hospitals today. I am so grateful for them, and I am so profoundly grateful for those who long before this pandemic came in the midst of this and after are holding the resilience of whole communities until all of us can join them in helping to change the underlying conditions that are creating those outcomes.
Lauren Gunderson: That is right. I think just as a storyteller, my mind immediately goes to, “What are the new heroes who need huge movies written about them and the Erin Brockoviches of this time, specifically for the communities that you mentioned?” Yeah, I think we’re going to find ourselves with new tragedies but also new inspirations. And I hope we are able to recognize and lift those up, so that we can change the way we live every day beyond this.
Gary Gunderson: So, we’ve had the conversation and I’m experiencing. Wow. I wish we were together, and with the dozens of others who would wish to be together in this identical conversation. But well into the night, I think we would all find ourselves stronger and more hopeful. We’re recording this in a week called Holy, and both of you have an interesting voice to lend to the holiness of this. Lauren was raised a Baptist is now a San Francisco mom, married to a Jewish virologist, raising two young boys, and she put together a Passover service last night in their home.
Soma is a national leader in the Baha’i community, which is a fascinating community looking with a very particular non-anxious clarity about the spiritual dynamics of our moment in which so many of us are so deeply wounded and fearful. And Soma never seems wounded and fearful, and it’s partly because of your religious formation, but I wonder if you could speak to the holiness of Public Health Week amid a pandemic.
Soma Saha: Yeah, the poem we’ve been reflecting on all week starts with what if the poem by Lynn Ungar on Pandemic, which start with… What if we treated this like the most, like the Jews treat the Sabbath the most sacred of times? I think that this is a sacred time. It requires its times of challenge that also call out the best in our spirits, and this is a time of unparalleled global challenge, and I think part of what it creates a space for in the teachings of the Baha’i faith is also that this moment of connection and space for us to be able to connect and think in a fundamentally different way to go back to, to turn away.
I think the next lines of the poem are, “What if we cease our traveling, our buying and selling,” to instead pause and think about, “What if we spend that time in meaning and connection and in storytelling and being with one another in ways where we can actually see one another and be recreated into a new space together?” That’s really… in all great spiritual stories there are options and paths that people take. I don’t know that the path out of this one is a known path. I think that they’re spiritual crises as I imagine biological crises for my molecular biology training, et cetera. This is both. I think crises for humanity give us paths that we can choose to lean into that bring us closer together, if we choose to treat this time as sacred, or we can choose to go back to the veils that were before us, before we had this moment of pause, the sacred time.
I think we’ve been thinking about how we bring ourselves to be quiet enough to see this a sacred time, to take the time for the being as well as the doing. I think if we don’t do that, we’ve had a whole lot of doing, and that doing isn’t necessarily getting us in the right direction because if you keep just doing the wrong thing, just keep getting the wrong outcome. So, for better or for worse, I think my tradition would say this is a moment where we have choices that we can make as humanity about us grown people, not because there’s some being up there that’s saying this or this, but because we have choices collectively about who we choose to be with one another.
If we can lean into this moment where things are suspended for us to do that self-reflection, that own spiritual work and not just individually but collectively, then we might be able to get to a different place.
Lauren Gunderson: I come to this week as like a lot of people of my generation, religion is less important to me than it has been and for my parents’ generation. But I still remember you’ll be very surprised the stories, and it is the simple lessons of those stories that I do take with me. So, from the Christian tradition, Easter is a time of resurrection and resilience and baffling defiance of a mortal ending, and having done so again by my recollection, he has risen indeed. It is for us all, so that oneness of community comes back again.
For the Jewish tradition that I’ve been gifted by my chosen family, last night, during our miniature Seder, it’s certainly not hard to look away from the consistent imagery of plagues, boils, disaster after disaster that one tidal wave of horror and sorrow going to crests right after the one just right before it. And yet, this continual quest for freedom that comes. That’s the takeaway and the story so much from the Passover story. “Let my people go. Let us go. Let us be who we are. Let us be known for who we are. Let us be free. Let us survive.” And as my family, like many Jewish families say, we’ll see you next time, next year together.” And that has become quite meaningful to us last night to say, “Where do we want to be next year?” The obvious is healthy and the second is together, and that both of those things will come to pass.
Then the biggest part of me is that, for me, theater is my church. That is where I go to experience the overwhelm and the beauty and the profound questions and the human exercise of dealing with those profound questions and the character-defying choices and actions that we are forced to make. That’s where I process. So, this week, I’ve started to, with tiny breaks in my day, stream Shakespeare from the Globe Theatre in London. They are streaming a new play every week for free on YouTube. So, I get to go to my mecca, my place, my church and see a play at Shakespeare’s Globe.
I see a play at the National Theater. I watched the public Shakespeare in the park last night, their version of Much Ado About Nothing, which you can get on PBS. So, all of these ways of going, “I can still find meaning and process and go to story whether it’s religious story or not or Shakespeare to continue to ask myself these questions,” so I’m in a constant state of self-interrogation, and yeah.
Gary Gunderson: Lauren, I’m tempted to wait this question for our next podcast, but I just can’t stand it. What does “The Book of Will” teach you about how public health as a field are the people who are not the heroes but are the ones who actually protect and pass on the tradition that gives life?
Lauren Gunderson: The Book of Will is a play that I wrote for those of you don’t know about Shakespeare’s friends who after a few years after he died are responsible for the fact that we know who Shakespeare is at all right now, because they collected his plays, the scraps of his plays, and put them in what we call the First Folio, and it’s because of that book that half of the plays would have disappeared altogether. The other half would have been non-sanctioned copies that someone wrote down after seeing the play.
So, it’s truly a play about community, and it is a play about coming together, doing something bigger than yourself, doing something both for someone who meant a lot but also for something that you know has a profound power and magic, the stories that they told together. And many of these friends were actors that acted with William Shakespeare. So, this idea of putting all of yourself into something that… The entire point of a book is so it can be captured and passed on, and I don’t know if they would have ever thought ever even imagined that it would have passed on so continually since they created it.
I think about that play a lot. The thing I think that relates to what we’re in the midst of is when we were rehearsing the premiere of that play, the director Davis McCallum and describing… the second act of the play comes with a bit of a shock and a surprise. Someone close to us doesn’t make it through to the second act, and as the characters on stage are grieving that, so too is the audience. As we were processing that, our director said to our group of actors, “This is a play that set several hundred years ago, but the death of a loved one is the same back then as it is now. The death of a child is the same as it was back then as it is now.”
Oh, well, there was so much more death, and lifespan was so much shorter back then. Yeah, yeah, it’s still the same. The human condition of facing tragedy and crisis especially when it comes to your door in your family is the same, and I think of that. When we talk about plagues, we think of the big ones, and I think of that in terms of HIV as much as the Black Plague from hundreds of years ago, and of course, the 1918 flu that is so often mentioned right now, and that massive wave of empathy that crosses time and continents when people know what it’s like to lose somebody. I think that is one of those things that does actually collectivize us that says, “I don’t know exactly your situation, but I am so sorry because I can imagine that,” or, “That has happened to me,” or, “I know how painful that would be.”
That’s what empathy does. That’s why it bonds us and binds us and says that is part of what tells us that this is our work and our experience and our way forward, not my way forward and my experience and my work. So, I think of that a lot in terms of that we are building this thing together. As Soma said so often, it takes so much of us and all of our capacities and all of our talents and all of our drives to build the thing that will hold that is powerful enough to last and hopefully work for all of us.
Soma Saha: What you said resonated with me in so many different levels, Lauren, but the public health leaders that are successful, they’re successful because… Actually, no one knows their name. Because they’re successful, people live 20 years longer, and that means that grandchildren know their grandparents and those are able to have them with them when they graduate. They don’t know the public health person who changed the food policy, et cetera, that made that happen.
Anthony Fauci is one of the few public health people whose names people will know. The vast majority of public health people, we succeed when no one knows our name. But our success is written in people being able to live long enough to reach their dreams. They’re the heroes that we work for. It’s written in families being together and having people to dance… Your father walk you down the aisle at your wedding or your mother or whoever.
I think it’s remembering that those everyday heroes are the real heroes here, both the professional ones and the other ones. And to that, Gary, there are no national leaders of the Baha’i community. I am just a practitioner like anyone else who is doing my part in my little corner to try to create a more connected world, because that’s what we say our fundamental challenge is today to be interconnected, to know deeply that we are meant to be interconnected. I think this moment in time of empathy that Lauren talked about of a loss of connection that makes us yearn for a connection. This is a moment which helps us realize that and see that, and there are millions of people who are leaning into this moment to be those heroes every day.
Gary Gunderson: We could talk a long time, and I would treasure every moment. I think we’re going to end the podcast with that gorgeous last thought. I just want to thank the two of you for lending yourself to hundreds and hundreds of people during these times and to us in this hour. Thank you very much.
Soma Saha: It was truly a privilege, and it was such a pleasure to get to know you, Lauren.
Lauren Gunderson: Likewise. What an honor and a joy.