Nasal Diplomacy

A funny route to peace

One of the articles in Play & Humor (IC#13)
Originally published in Spring 1986 on page 32
Copyright (c)1986, 1997 by Context Institute

Dr. Patch Adams is an MD with a difference. Not only is he a clown and a diplomat, but he has for more than 15 years been putting into practice the idea that "healing should be a loving human interchange, not a business transaction." He is the director of the Gesundheit Institute (404 N. Nelson St, Arlington, VA 22203, or 703/525-8169) where, with 20 others, they have so far provided free medical care to over 15,000 people. In the article that follows, he describes his playful approach to a different kind of healing.

"THUS IT COMES ABOUT THAT, in a world where men are differently affected toward each other, all are at one in their attitude toward these innocents (fools); all seek them out, give them food, keep them warm, embrace them, and give them aid, if occasion rises; and all grant them leave to say and do what they wish with impunity. So true it is that no one wishes to hurt them, that even wild beasts, by a certain internal sense of their innocence, will refrain from doing them harm."

– Erasmus In Praise of Folly

The invitation said a group was going to Russia on a mission of citizen diplomacy. We would be 75 people – doctors, teachers, religious leaders, movie stars, etc. – going to meet our counterparts in an attempt to help our government bridge the gaps between our countries. Surely I want peace more than anything else I can think of. And it is no secret that I feel our government’s diplomacy could use lots of help; but what is a citizen diplomat? The implication was that simply being in Russia, not as a tourist, but as a U.S. citizen for peace, might have far reaching results. Could we reduce the "Red Menace" to individuals – with families – who like to fish – go dancing – feel secure for their future – who want to be friends with us? So diplomacy had an air of neighborliness, hospitality to it with an emphasis on direct action to improve communication and love between two countries locked in apparent combat. There was no mention of meetings in the Kremlin; maybe that is for political diplomats. No, our mission was to hook up with the Russian people. We were even given instructions to play such games as "Subway Roulette" where one took subways and buses until hopelessly lost and then enlisted Russians to help find one’s way back.

Well, I wanted to go. I had been to Russia before, 11 years ago with a communal group of 13 friends in an old bus that entered Russia at Brest, Poland. The wonderful time we had there had released my sense of "the enemy" and replaced it with a feeling of great hope. Here was a passionate, generous, dancing population that had been devastated by World War II (where 20,000,000 died, compared to our 300,000) and seemed to really want peace. I made friends there that I still correspond with. I remember then joking that we were ambassadors for peace. Now here was an opportunity to actually go with that intent as the focus.

I would not be able to sow the seeds of peace through conversation because I spoke no Russian. I didn’t want to limit my impact for peace simply to those who spoke good English so I chose to go as a clown – a fool. I had done street clowning for more than 20 years and knew its power to spread good cheer. The clown is a universal symbol that has a long tradition in Russia. I’d felt that, after our last Russian trip, I had a handle on the potential receptivity. There is no street theater in Russia where, for personal security reasons, it seems imperative that citizens keep a very low profile and attract no attention. Ah! What an easy audience! An automatic ice breaker – a magnet to the curious. And, like the angler fish, once a Russian comes close enough to see the buttons for peace and friendship there comes the thrust of a warm hand, the dart of a twinkling eye, and a friend is snared. I also knew that children love clowns; and if families saw their children loved and played with, laughing with abandon, again our 30-word peace vocabulary would strike home.

I debated long with myself and conferred with friends about this idea. Most encouraged caution, suggesting I take the clown profile for special occasions and be regular for the bulk of the time. There was a concern that the Russians would feel mocked or frightened to approach someone so visible. My wife, Lynda, also reminded me how intense it is to be someone tagging along and that the fellow diplomats might resent such ostentation. Besides it’s not all that easy to wear a rubber nose 16 hours a day and maintain a silly walk for 2 weeks. I knew, dressed as a clown, I’d have to stay in the role the whole time. I suppose it was all the past experience I’d had that finally convinced me that if I led from my heart, the experience would be breathtaking. Love and laughter seem to be the prime ingredients of peace. I wanted to touch the most lives, show I cared for them and leave a lingering nice feeling about us.

I called myself a nasal diplomat. I made up a "Laughport" with silly pictures of me wearing 18 noses. These would be my official papers if I had any confrontations – so I also had them translated into Russian. I got a gross of rubber noses to take as my gift of peace to initiate and recruit others to become ambassadors of the beak.

Seventy-five diplomats met outside Helsinki for three days to get to know each other; to try to become a cohesive group. We had talks on Russian history, customs, psychology and a crash course in thirty words of peace and friendship. I dressed and acted the clown there to help folks acclimate to my foolishness and it was very helpful. When I first arrived, I sensed that a fair number were disconcerted with my plan, even thinking me misplaced for such a serious mission. However, by the end of that period I had gotten much positive feedback about my helping people relax and be themselves. For many, entering the Soviet Union, with its totalitarianism, was anxiety producing. I gave a mini-workshop on "How to be Nutty" to the diplomats and presented each with a rubber nose to use if the spirit moved them.

Before entering Russia, several fun previews of nasal diplomacy happened. One evening, in the lounge of the hotel, Lynda and I sat near a group of a dozen Finnish men who were celebrating after a day long seminar for bank employees. We were each enjoying the other when one asked why I was dressed so. This led to several hours of uproarious laughter, singing and sharing of cultures as we were assimilated into their celebration ’til past closing time – with hugs and best wishes.

Then we entered Russia. We were scheduled to spend 11 days between Leningrad and Moscow. The experience exceeded my wildest dreams. Everywhere we went people of all ages laughed spontaneously and saluted in friendship. So often situations that begged formality were defused towards a more relaxed atmosphere. One of the most refreshing impressions, ubiquitous to the 11 days, was that unguarded spontaneous reaction that occurred on first recognition – the beaming smile. Surprise! When we drove into Leningrad early the first morning, as we passed people on buses or street corners, all I saw in their faces was a mirror of my happiness, and a license to be uninhibited. What magic! Our very first stop was in a large square at the Winter Palace among a fleet of tourist buses, mostly filled with Russians visiting the site of their great revolution. I went right up to groups with my funny faces and silent joy – enthusiastically shaking hands and hugging – receiving many invitations to stand in their group pictures, often feeling as if in an aviary, with muffled twitters and giggles. On my colorful clownish raiment were buttoned entreaties to peace between our nations – universally these brought enthusiastic expressions of goodwill. So often these meetings ended in tearful hugs and chants of mir y drushba (peace and friendship). For dessert, out came the pictures of family – the soulful meltdown of barriers was complete. I’m not speaking of a few isolated thrills but a recurrent scene everywhere we went.

Walking back to our bus a handsome man, dressed quite ivy league, stopped me. In perfect English he said he had been watching me, liked my interactions with the people and would like to get together. So nasal diplomacy had given Lynda and me what turned out to be our most intimate and lasting friendship of the trip. We spent every day in Leningrad with Alex (and his girlfriend, Sveta); and he cut work and followed us to Moscow. Alex was 30, in graduate studies in English and worked as a librarian and part time as a guide translator for the Hermitage Museum. Sveta was an architecture student. What perfect hosts. He was an Anglophile more up on the fashions than I – he had just received an order from an L.L. Bean catalog. Conversation never stopped and we explored all subjects. I was amazed at his grasp of slang, which he beamed at us like prizes. They took us to non-tourist restaurants which were often connected to dance floors. How they all love dancing. The band played everything from folk to Michael Jackson. All ages danced – singly, in couples, with the same sex; and, to our delight, Russians seem to think nothing of coming to a table and asking someone to dance even if they are coupled. We had many offers to toast in celebration and one table sent a love letter. We went back to Alex’s home because he was anxious to see a John Denver special. During those five days we ate in a pizza parlor (a big hit for the last couple of years), went to a Las Vegas review show, to the Dostoyevsky house and took a romantic row on a system of canals in a park near his home. Our last moments together were in Moscow at 3 am in Red Square, the only two people – singing songs, laughing and planning our future. We have exchanged many letters since and know we shall meet again.

Another touching moment came in Leningrad. Three of us were walking on the street absorbed in thought when suddenly I felt a soft tiny hand in mine. Looking down I found it belonged to a 4-5 year old girl who had been walking with her father. She had seen a clown and wanted to hold his hand. We exchanged love and noses and moved on, intoxicated.

I’ve always been fond of teenagers. The Russian ones were a great field to cultivate in my nutty role. From a block away, I would spot groups of them returning home from school. They would see me and burst out laughing, which was my cue to go among them and enhance their giggling machines. I would put my arms around them – walk with them – and never was there tension or resistance. I might hold a hand for half a block while we spoke of peace. There was an air of innocence with these teens reminiscent of the USA in the 50s. There has been a dramatic shift since we were there 12 years ago – with much more color in clothes and expressivity on the street. I recall one youth who came up outside a museum, pinned a button of her province on my jacket, and blushed away.

There was a moment in Red Square when I was with Lynda and two musician friends from the trip. On a pretty day, the huge square is filled with all manner of tourists. It is a festive place. There were many groups coming from all over Russia to celebrate the 40th anniversary of their victory in WWII. We paused to watch a large group of men and women with checkered chests of medals poised for a photo. These were obviously folk from the country, awkward in their drab seldom-used suits, celebrating in this city of nine million. We began playing Russian folk music and I grabbed one older woman to dance while others cheered and clapped. This kicked off a long time of button exchanges, musical photo rearrangement and loud chants of peace and friendship as, yet again, tears of hope flowed unabashed. The Russian people we met seemed very quick to grab hold of any banner for peace. I never saw any anti-American feelings. It was hard to leave that Red Square experience. I felt that as long as it was happening, there was no way war could ever come.

One last experience came at the Moscow Circus when our lovely guide, Helen, helped me at intermission to go and meet the clown, which was such a dream come true. I had come with some gifts of jazz cassettes, a rubber nose and some homemade juggling balls, and with an offer sometime to return and, hopefully, do some street clowning in a combined US/USSR effort. He invited me back after the show where we met his family. He surprised me by giving me his beautiful handcrafted kid leather clown shoes saying "I’ve made people laugh here wearing these for 20 years – now it is time for you to do the same at your home." He said he, too, hoped that through humor the world might grow closer in peace. What a final curtain to a transforming apprenticeship in nasal diplomacy.

Now, 9 months later, I am still committed to that diplomacy right here in my everyday life. I knew clowning was helpful for peace but I had never done it for 2 weeks in a row. I am realizing more and more that one need not leave home to practice diplomacy – with friends and neighbors. I find myself wearing my noses more than ever, feeling their tension-releasing power. I know there are many tools of diplomacy and hope that each can find one that suits them. Somehow I feel if we each used these tools locally to help bring peace to our neighborhoods then this, too, would be working on the world.

And what a serious world. Newspapers, TV, all the media project a serious world burdened with problems. What if the fool was put back in the court? What if every time serious people met over serious problems they brought one nut of their choice for balance. When I picture a Geneva talk I realize I must accept a Reagan and a Gorbachev as part of the team; but what if each of them brought their favorite silly person. I believe it would ease tension and open all up to vulnerability and commonality. Lighten up, world! Consider a career in nasal diplomacy.

The Gesundheit Institute is working to extend its dream of free health care by building a 25-bed, free healing and educational health facility. Several hundred thousand dollars have been raised so far, but to raise more, Patch is doing "Playshops" around the country in which he shares some of his wonderful nuttiness. He describes it this way: "The most distressing health issues we find in so many folk are the horrid combinations of boredom, loneliness, and fear. This playshop grew out of our experience in learning ways to stimulate imagination, friendship, and community to help balance those pernicious elements of disease." If you would like to have 48 hours of merriment while helping Patch help all of us, contact him about his playshops (404 N. Nelson St, Arlington, VA 22203, or 703/525-8169).