The Power of Purple Crayons

In 1955 author Crockett Johnson introduced one of the world’s most beloved and enduring young adventurers, Harold and his purple crayon. In the decades since “Harold and the Purple Crayon” first landed on bookshelves and bedside tables, it has sparked imaginations and encouraged curiosity in millions of readers and listeners. Why? This is the very question that Ellenhorn founder Dr. Ross Ellenhorn explores in “Purple Crayons: The Art of Drawing a Life,” set to be published by HarperCollins on Nov. 1. Here, Dr. Ellenhorn shares a sneak peak of the book he considers not only his personal homage to Johnson and Harold, but a guidebook to life for readers.

This book is a little like “The Tao of Pooh,” in that it uses a children’s book to address important adult issues. How did you end up choosing “Harold and the Purple Crayon” for this? 

I’ve always been interested in the issue of how to live a life that is lively and the forces that try to stop us from doing just that. I picked up Harold off my kid’s bookshelf to read to him one night 20 years ago when I was at a time in which my life didn’t seem to have a lot of creativity or originality to it. Reading it to Max got me thinking about what it means to conform and what it means to have a playful existence. As a sociologist and psychotherapist, it was a lot of the stuff that I’d already been studying, but Harold kind of pulled it all together for me and became a way to articulate how important it is to be original—it’s the very thing that gives us both a sense of being alive and the ability to see the life in others.

What is the main theme in “Purple Crayons”? 

The concept of what it means to be playful. I have strong feelings about play as the central thing that brings us to our humanity. When we play, three things happen: we experience our own life within us in the moment; we experience the life of the beings and things outside of us (which is what children do when they imbue life in a toy); and we experience a sense of the place between us and the world we’re interacting with. All those things come alive in play. It’s a way of connecting with the world; it’s a way of being original but a part of things at the same time. I consider it the central element that gets us to find meaning and connection in our lives.

“Play” seems like a tricky word, since you’re interested in serious stuff, and play makes one think about fun. What do you mean when you say play? 

Play is the act of encountering something from the world outside you, seeing it as pliable, bringing it into our being and then expressing something of yourself through this encounter—and there are a million things we can do that are like that. It could be cooking a meal. It could be throwing a party. Political resistance is also always rooted in some form of playful, but very serious, posture to power, i.e., a willingness to see what might seem impossible to change and play with the idea that maybe it isn’t. On a psychological level, play is about a willingness to be courageous and a part of things in a way that expresses our originality. In this, it’s the thing we do to keep ourselves ourselves when we meet challenges. So, play, for me, is connected to dignity, our right to our “sacred personalities” as Martin Luther King Jr. would describe it. Sure, play can be fun, fun is a good thing, but it’s so much deeper than that. What brings us closest to our humanity is the capacity to get together, be our own selves, contribute in our own original way, and constantly create new things and experiences that bring us to life. 

You give talks on hope and a lot of the philosophy at Ellenhorn has to do with your theories on hope. These ideas were also central to your last book with HarperCollins, “How We Change (and the Ten Reasons Why We Don’t”). Is hope a part of this book?

The scales that are used to measure hope actually consider two things: Does the person in question have a strong belief in themselves and do they find alternative pathways when they encounter a barrier? Those are the two signs of a hopeful person, and to me those are the two signs of a playful person. A person that says, “I’m going to face this dilemma and be playful enough to think about all the angles. I can play with ideas, and my mind is flexible and able to think of alternatives. I have faith in myself that I can make this work and the sense that if I play something good will come out of it.” Hope and play are always connected.

How else do the themes in “Purple Crayons” relate to Ellenhorn? 

There’s been this sort of movement in our culture toward standardization and conformity. Psychology and psychiatry used to be a kind of improvisational art form in which one person in the room was suffering and dealing with an issue and the other person was listening and responding. What it’s become instead, is a push for “normalization” and “sameness,” which is accomplished in large part by creating standardized ways of testing and defining people. Ellenhorn is a company that believes that that kind of approach to a person’s growth doesn’t actually work that well in helping people and is potentially injurious. Instead, we look at people’s own dreams of growth and the direction they want to go in and then follow that improvisationally. That doesn’t mean that we don’t do psychiatry or that we don’t sometimes talk about diagnoses, but we believe that the people we work with have been hurt by systems that try to force them into categories and boxes. 

I also think that play rests at the center of our two main therapeutic methods at Ellenhorn: Open Dialogue and Mentalization. Open Dialogue is a form of care that is designed to help individuals experiencing an extreme event of mind. It’s a delicate, tender kind of therapy that is as improvisational as you can get, and based on the idea of “polyphony,” meaning many voices in the room. I see it as the closest form of therapy to jazz, and I see jazz as a complete celebration of play, among other things. Mentalization is about the ability to imagine another’s experiences, their feelings, thoughts and intentions. Like a lot of people, I think the ability to mentalize comes from our early experiences of play, since childhood play always involves the placing of an independent life into an inanimate object or toy. It’s about seeing life in something outside you. In this, play is the root of compassion and empathy as well.  

How do you personally relate to Harold and his trusty crayon?

Harold is a kind of hero to me and an example of something I’d like to follow. He lives amongst a lot of heroes of mine—the Transcendentalists, John Coltrane, Beatrice Wood, Pete Seger and Bootsy Collins, to name just a few. People who have had the guts to design their lives in their own way; he’s sort of my lodestar.

Miles Davis once said something like, “My future starts when I wake up. Every day I do something creative with my life.” I want that for myself, but I think we should want that for everyone. What else should we fight for but the chance to feel alive and the opportunity to encounter the lives of other living beings?

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