Sunday, September 8, 2013

A Year For Eudaimonia

Eudaimonia...nope, spellcheck didn't recognize it but Wikipedia shows what it represents to a degree. What's more this is a very old term with lots of interpretations, and one I wasn't familiar with until a philosophy class several years ago. My professor stressed a definition which also made sense to me: living is not always easy - especially on the terms society recently came to expect, let alone the search for happiness which became such a part of the 20th century. Another aspect of the word involves virtue in what one chooses and while that is certainly important, a part of me wants to downplay it because of the association with morality. Morality is an odd thing...of course it's important, but I'm not sure if I can pin down how, because each of us has our own interpretation.

For a lot of people over the course of time, eudaimonia may not have been associated with happiness so much as simply living out one's life - in the long run - according to the purpose which makes the most sense. It does seem that living beyond a certain point means making a grudging peace with one's "destiny", even for staunch believers in free will such as myself. However there is a reason the word eudaimonia applies now, in that I let life get in the way of committing to my own primary purpose, many times over. The fact that I finally found myself in a "do or die" corner, makes the versions of happiness I once pursued, somewhat irrelevant.

As my birthday approaches (59 on the 24th) I reflect on a year of considerable change. No, not easy to see changes as in earlier decades, just continued transitioning on the inside. Perhaps I'm doing better with those "inevitable" parts of life that we often fear or otherwise wish we could just keep running from as quickly as possible - who knows. However one aspect of the present is something I didn't really expect: a growing ability to recall elements of the past which seemed long forgotten.

What's more, remembering the past can be a really good thing as indicated in this recent post by Scott Sumner. I used to chide others about "reliving the good old days" when there were good days to be "made" now. In a performing context as a musician, that mindset also meant adding as many current songs as possible to the band's playlist. When it came to others my own age, something about reliving the past once felt as though someone's personal star wasn't set high enough in the sky. And yet, Scott's thoughts on reminiscing are actually encouraging for me now, for they remind me of so many earlier efforts I'd made to get the most out of life - all along.

Whenever we go through years which turn into a scary struggle to survive, they can steal away a lot of our better memories. I finally reached a point where it became obvious that even though I would be okay, I would not be able to continue the kind of work I did in the past. What's more, the (long overdue) cataract surgery on both eyes meant regaining my vision. I must have started reading (everything in sight) again the next day, prior to taking on the project of this past decade. Even then, once I was able to "catch my breath", I was startled at the recall of past events which would matter for the studies of the present.

In the months since starting this blog, ongoing efforts to turn notes into recognizable thought processes are starting to bring that ability of recall into sharper focus. The nice part about it: not everything was hardship and difficulty. When one focuses on "driving ahead" for new realities as I did for so long, it can be too easy to forget about the good times. In other words, I wasn't really very sentimental or nostalgic! At the very least, giving in to the occasional bout of nostalgia now seems to have some side benefits as well.

Of course all too often I was the one who "moved on", because it's just what so many of my generation did when they were young. While work was often responsible for the move, there were other reasons too. The seventies and eighties were a time when investment often meant buying into new forms of experience, and real estate just a part of that. Especially in the eighties: if something about one's environment was annoying, frightening, dangerous or otherwise aggravating, the common reaction was to be proactive, even if that meant leaving the premises and starting anew. Unfortunately in some cases that was as true for relationships (not to mention the advice of counselors) as well as the workplace.

Indeed, the need to start over (too many times) still exists for individuals in lower income work, even as those with higher incomes and also younger generations are less inclined to such a high degree of change in their lives now. Perhaps telling as to just how different our economic environment really is in the present: it has become a point of integrity for people to maintain their relationship circumstances in particular, by whatever means. No question - when there is adequate income, relationships are a tremendous part of that stability. This is something I've observed in my own extended family over the years as well.

How might eudaimonia apply in the present, for those who are still young? I like to think it is possible to find versions of happiness which revolve around purpose in a more immediate sense. This quote (HT Farnam Street) about happiness from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi:
...the best moments of our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times - although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person's body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something we make happen.
I have to agree.

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