It was such a pretty although still a bit chilly and breezy day for such an unusual sight. As I took a walk on the beach recently, I caught sight of several groups of people dotted along the shore. They were clustered in a range of ages, sometimes spanning several generations, small circles of families and friends and young couples all doing what we never do anymore: looking up. So much of our lives are spent looking down at things like phones, computers, paperwork, and chores. At the beach, I look down for treasures of seaglass, shells, or rocks, or look straight ahead over the waves to the horizon to contemplate any number of things. But steadily gazing upward? I followed their sight lines up long slender strings into the sky that ended at individual brightly colored kites, each fluttering in the breeze and straining just hard enough on the string to speak of the tremendous forces contained between the sky, wind, kite, string, and hand down below. It is funny how you can get lost in that sight, which got me thinking, why? What is it about kite flying that is so mesmerizing? Why do we fly kites?
Back home, I sifted through these thoughts as they related to the idea of what we can do better as health care providers, parents, health policy makers, health administrators, community members, or any one who cares about children with chronic health conditions to help them to thrive, optimize their outcomes, and put their conditions in perspective. Why did I have a nagging feeling that those kites held some part of the answer? There was some of the obvious, like it was an activity that has no boundaries for age and ability, it is done out of doors and encourages physical activity and exercise, it promotes socialization and a shared, simple, and achievable goal. There were some deeper ideas, like it requires that we all be in the moment, and is fully absorbing to allow a mental respite from worry, pain, or stress. But there was something else, and I am not sure I have fully unearthed it, but I think it has to do with a quote “a kite only flies if it is tethered.” It seems counterintuitive, as if somehow the freedom of flight should not depend on the restriction of a leash. However from a physics principal, this is true; a kite flies because wind forces around the kite develop asymmetric pressure gradients and create “lift” which pushes it upward to overcome its weight against gravity. However the “drag” or backward force on it will bring it down unless there is an opposite force or “thrust.” An airplane uses its motors for thrust, a bird uses its muscles to power its wings. A kite however must rely on tension from the string. The forces of thrust and drag, lift and weight must be in balance for it to soar.
So, um, where am I going with this? I think the lesson is in the idea that for each child, there are opposing forces, such as a medical diagnosis and real or perceived limitations or “drag,” and there is negativity in the language that we inadvertently use in medicine that counters optimism and ability to develop a full sense of self confidence. And we, as health care providers, parents, or authority figures for a child have tremendous ability to influence the success of their flight by exerting even a fingerful of pressure on a string that binds us together. With the right tug, there is mutual success rather than restriction of motion or flight. And in return, we get the extraordinary pleasure and satisfaction of watching them soar, and delight in seeing this small seemingly frail object capture and tame the powerful winds, and dance triumphantly without a care high in the sky.
Also, flying a kite is just pure fun. It does not need to be more than that, and in fact, I have spent some time exploring the benefits of play and fun in achieving full health as well (see Punch Buggy Blue! for instance).
Last, I think that there is something to be said for looking up into the sky, and not just a brief glance at that. Really watching, head tipped back, breathing a bit more deeply, taking in both the vastness of the earth and sky as well as appreciating the forces of nature around us and getting a little thrill out of the ability to capture just a small piece of that, by watching the kite tug on that string and inch itself a bit higher in the air, like the way a surfer feels when dropping in on a wave and joining as one with the power of that current to ride into the shore. Or marvel at watching a gull ride the airwaves, another frequent sight at the beach.
I think so much of the potential outcomes of these kids with chronic health conditions depends on how we see them, how they see themselves, how much they play, and how much we are able to guide them in that process. There must be a way to capture some of these salient elements and wrap them into the health care encounter, or into health care language (see Why “Collective Well”?), or measure them as ways to assess value in health care delivery. In fact, maybe instead of “wellness credits” offered by insurance companies being based on numerous health questions such as diagnoses, self reported exercise, workplace ergonomics, and habits for health and wellness, they should ask one simple question: when did you last fly a kite?