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Ithaka on the Horizon by Stavro Nashi

Ithaka on the Horizon

by Stavro Nashi

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ITHAKA ON THE HORIZON: A Greek-American Journey

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09 February 2008

Comments

Margaret

Stavros,

First, it's been a glorious, glorious sunny weekend here with cloudless skies, and warm enough to sit outside at lunchtime to eat. We've had house guests (fellow conquerors of Mont Blanc) and went for a long walk along the coast with Wolf on his 3rd birthday. Happiness seems to be much as my Stone Age ancestors would have understood it - sunshine, warmth, family and friends, food, bonfires, a dog, the sea, and the beauty of the natural world.

I imagine you have come to the same conclusion, trying to reconcile The American Dream with your Orthodoxy. I often wonder whether someone with all my worldly possessions will ever fit through the eye of the needle, or be able to be part of the "counterculture", and whether my Roma activist friend, who turns his back on the world, is not, in many ways, much closer to Jesus. The network of dependencies that having a family create, and an instinctive impulse to make one’s children’s opportunities the best that they can be, makes it difficult, if not impossible, to avoid the lure of worldly happiness. I believe we just have to hold that worldy stuff lightly because, ultimately, it does not matter.

But I have another problem with the sacrificial notion of devotion (that includes submission and suffering) that Professor Bush sets out. I think it is often true that women know more about the sacrificial meaning of love than men do, so I am immediately on my guard and need to be persuaded that Bush has made the sacrifices for Jesus that he exhorts us to adopt.

Like many women brought up in the Christian faith, I have found myself facing a strong moral imperative to sacrifice myself for others because of how I believe I should behave. Standing up for oneself (or seeking one’s own happiness) then begins to feel like a selfish impulse that has to be squashed by others who have no compunction in continuing to behave in a selfish way. What would Bush have us do? Continue to be put-upon?

Part of that growing up that I do not wish to revisit was a rejection of that abject sacrificial orientation to life that kills the will. Yet I have not rejected my sacrificial love altogether, but it is tempered by a strong conviction that we must not muddle sacrifices for our beliefs with sacrifices that others demand of us in their selfishness. The former is sacrifice from a position of strength, the latter from a horrible position of weakness.

Stavros

Margaret,

It is all about the basics I guess when it comes right down to the things that make most of us truly happy. The worldly attractions are difficult to ignore, I'm no exception. I don't think God condemns anyone for having riches though, they come to people from many sources, but He does warn people not to seek after them and trust in them more than in God. His greatest desire is for us to set our hearts on loftier goals and not on things of this earth.

I think all of us end making sacrifices in one way or another. I am not trying to say the way you feel might not be legitimate. It certainly is, yet ultimately it isn't about what others do to us or demand of us. It is how we respond. Perhaps the quality of our response might help us negotiate that ever important eye of the needle.

Theophilos

Stavros,
I've read this post quite closely and I've struggled with some of the thoughts thus provoked. The question of sacrifice leads to a tortuous road and it is one that I have difficulty with, although in daily practice I sacrifice more than I care to without too much thinking. As for the essence of happiness, most ancient Greek philosophers tried with no success. Perhaps I should return to this with a regular, lengthier post over at DG. Thanks for providing the impetus for some really serious thinking.

Stavros

Theophile,

I look forward to reading more. Please don't think that I am someone who is preaching nor do I think that William Bush is wagging his finger at us. This whole issue of happiness and sacrifice is central to the decay in our modern societies. We have got to grapple with it and get it out in the open. It is also central to me as an immigrant caught up between two worlds: the American and the Greek one. Although I am beginning to think that my Greek world is not the same one you are trapped in.

Margaret

Stavros,

Not sure about blog etiquette here and whether I am supposed to post lengthy supplementary comments on my own blog ... It seemed better here.

Aren’t we all saying more or less the same thing, you and me and Theophilos?

Thinking more about sacrifice, I suppose I am unhappy with sacrifices made because of our fear of other people’s reactions or our desire to please other people. And that when we make sacrifices because we believe that they are the right thing to do, then in an astonishingly liberating way, they cease to be sacrifices (in the sense of having given up something we wanted) because we know that had we done the thing which we have chosen not to do, it would have made us unhappy because we knew it was wrong. I think, having tested this on several examples in my head, that this is a rule I believe applies across the board, and is what I meant when I tried to draw a distinction between sacrifices made, or not made, from a position of power.

A few mundane examples:

A man with cabin fever is desperate for some physical exercise, but his wife needs him to listen to her (or his child needs him to help with a school project). He wants to go for a run, smack a squash ball around a court, or go to the gym. If he doesn’t do what his wife (or child) wants he can guarantee that they will be unhappy, make his life miserable, sulk, shout, scream, slam doors, call him selfish or whatever. If he chooses not to go to the gym because of the consequences, he makes that sacrifice from a position of weakness and is likely to feel resentful, bitter and unhappy. If he decides not to go to the gym because he thinks on this occasion that his wife’s (or child’s) should properly be given priority over his own, then he makes the sacrifice from a position of strength, but it also ceases to be a sacrifice because staying at home makes him feel good because he is doing what he believes to be right. It is possible that he might, equally, decide that he has listened to his wife every evening for the past week, and spent several hours already helping his son, in which case he would be better going to the gym.

A woman is tempted by an extra-marital affair which appears to meet all her un-met needs and which she feels is what she wants more than anything else. She decides to walk away not because she is frightened of her husband’s anger, or because she knows that her financial situation will be much worse if she leaves, or because she likes being married to a high-achieving man, but because she believes it is wrong. What seemed like an unbearable sacrifice until the exact moment of decision, appears as a liberating affirmation of her own power once she has taken the decision. One can easily imagine a similar situation where a man, tempted, is frightened that his wife will kill herself if he leaves, or that he will only see his children at weekends, or that his brother-in-law will never speak to him again, yet he decides to stay because it is the right thing not because he cannot bear the consequences of the alternative.

A man decides to leave his well-paid job in the City to become a youth-worker. He sacrifices his status amongst other men, his ability to buy the shiniest American Dream for himself and for his family, his hope for world tours in retirement not because he believes he will be rewarded in heaven, but because he believes it is the right decision. His sacrifice turns out not to be a sacrifice.

I am all in favour of strong sacrifices, but think weak sacrifices are a thoroughly bad thing for all concerned, if that makes any sense. But notice also, how dependent my distinction is on a strong sense of what is right and what is wrong, … which is an even bigger subject but one closely tied up with happiness, I think.

Hermes

"As for the essence of happiness, most ancient Greek philosophers tried with no success".

Most serious theoreticians today believe otherwise. Most of them believe that still the best understanding of happiness were by the Greeks.

Here is one example: http://vaindesires.blogspot.com/index.html

Theophilos

OK, let me simplify... I mean really simplify:
Happiness is the combination of the following:
1. Iron health
2. Not feeling pressured by money worries
3. Being reasonably free to do things that please you, including having work that does not feel like the world's burden
4. Having a partner that understands and empathizes (if you feel the need for a partner, that is)
5. Breathing clean air, drinking clean water, and eating healthy food

I stop here. Note how I have not provided for any "spiritual" or "intellectual" needs.

Stavros

M,

Excuse the delay in responding. Part of the beauty of these discussions is that we get to think about our answers. Yes, I agree that the three of us are basically saying the same thing. I don't believe our versions of happiness are very different, just the road we take to reach that happiness. You make a persuasive argument about the quality of one's sacrifice, i.e. whether it is made from the heart or from a sense of guilt. The former is always more preferable than the latter, although I think the final result is what counts.

Elder Paisios says it much better than I ever could. He counseled that the torment of man is egotism. Real wisdom and ultimately happiness in this life is found through humility and love for others. Now of course this is the exact opposite of what the world teaches us and our children. Paisios strongly believe that people, from an early age must be guided to understand the deeper meaning of life, which is to be united with God and to rejoice truly. This union with God brings Divine Grace and sheltered by that Grace man has nothing to fear and thus achieves a true, lasting happiness.In order to achieve this unity we must free ourselves from our proud egos. This is extremely difficult for all of us, myself included, in the world we live in. I am sure that within this blog there have been numerous examples of my inability at times to overcome my own ego.

I would recommend a wonderful book for children written by Mersine Vigopoulou and available in English. The title is from "I-ville to You-ville" and it is about a little boy who lives in an imaginary place where it is all about individual egos and suddenly finds himself on a journey to another imaginary place where the inhabitants are focused on others rather than themselves.

This book is able to illustrate complex ideas into a form that children can understand. I recommend it highly:

http://www.sainthermanpress.com/catalog/chapter_twelve/from_iville_to_youville.htm

T,

Let's say that we achieve all those things, are we truly happy? I think there is more to true happiness. How can we feel fulfilled without achieving some type of inner spiritual peace with ourselves? I also wonder why we spend so much time writing our thoughts in our blogs. Could it be that we all crave some of the intellectual stimulation that they bring us. Leaving the last two elements out I feel is ignoring the key to the search for enlightenment if not happiness.

H,

The Greeks may have asked all the right questions about happiness but we are still trying to answer them to our satisfaction.

Hermes

Theophilos's list of things seems a little self centred. I would not fully advocated the Orthodox position but loving and taking care of loved ones is very satisfying. I think it is called fulfilling one's duty. Also, culture appears to be missing. A culture with rituals, ceremones, signposts, artifacts, symbols which are not emptied of meaning and are continually given new meaning is also very satisfying and brings happiness.

Margaret

Here's my favourite list:

Security — safe territory and an environment which allows us to develop fully
Attention (to give and receive it) — a form of nutrition
Sense of autonomy and control — having volition to make responsible choices
Being emotionally connected to others
Feeling part of a wider community
Friendship, intimacy — to know that at least one other person accepts us totally for who we are, “warts 'n' all”
Privacy — opportunity to reflect and consolidate experience
Sense of status within social groupings
Sense of competence and achievement
Meaning and purpose — which come from being stretched in what we do and think.

It's from a list of "human givens" which you can read more about here.

http://www.hgi.org.uk/archive/human-givens.htm

Practically, performing an "audit" of those needs enables you to see what is missing and, hopefully, take steps to fill the gap (link at the bottom right of the page above). I think it's pretty easy to work out where the gaps are. It works well with teenagers who are down in the dumps (I know). I use it as a check-list with my children, and for myself too, and my GP friend uses it in her practice now and finds it works well.

The Human Givens Handbook is excellent and expands on the list - charitable work, for example, is seen as an important part of feeling connected to a community. There are some pretty big claims made about depression and addiction falling away if these needs are met. The specialist books in those areas make a convincing case against the medical model of depression, but I do not know whether it is as easy as they make it sound to make the necessary changes when in the grip of a depression or addiction. I do wish everyone would read the books!

I suppose, though, as Hermes says it is not far removed from the ideas of Greek philosophers, particularly about eudaimonia or flourishing, since happiness is a by-product of a series of individual goals.

Margaret

S, got carried away with writing what I wanted to write, and forgot to acknowledge your reply to me, which, of course, I've read carefully. The book looks wonderful indeed - the illustrations look right up Lola B's street (she'd like to be an illustrator) so I'll try to track down a copy that will ship to the UK. Looks like a good present for godchildren too. Thank you.

I sort of agree with what you've written about the ego - but worry that I do not do my children (for example) any favours if I give in to them always, or always allow them to put their needs first.

We teach them to have regard to the needs of others, including their parents' needs (for solitude, for couple time, for time with friends) which is only a smidgeon away from crying "What about me?" ...

And sometimes I need to say "What about me?".

Stavros

Many thanks for bringing my attention to this particular site. Although I have an aversion to checklists I think that this might be helpful. I am surprised that the list does not include a spiritual element, perhaps it is the last one "meaning and purpose." I guess my problem is this: it takes for granted that all these elements are under our control. That we are totally in charge of our fate. I don't mean to discount the importance of individual effort. So much depends on us. What I am getting at is that eventually in order to be really happy we need to acknowledge God and his role in our lives. If our world. as we know it, fell apart tomorrow and we are thrust into events that are totally beyond our control, what then? How do we cope without going crazy?

True, lasting happiness is the byproduct of letting God into our lives so that even when family and community let us down we never feel alone.

Take depression for instance. It is a debilitating condition often beyond the control of the person afflicted with it. It cannot be ignored. Currently it is treated by using a combined approach, medication and pschotherapy. These have their rightful place, but what about the deeper spiritual causes?

Metropolitan Hierotheos:

http://www.pelagia.org/htm/b0niben.htm

has written a very useful book:

http://www.pelagia.org/htm/b02.en.orthodox_psychotherapy.000.htm

in this regard.

I think Lola B (and your God-daughter) will like the other book. It is richly illustrated and written in a way children will understand. Hope it's available in the UK.

I think you are right not to give in to their every whim. Nothing drives me crazier than to see parents showering kids with gifts, undue attention or trying to meet their spurious demands. Kids need to understand that as much as we love and adore them, the world does not revolve around them. Too many parents feel guilty about parenting these days. Parents are not responsible for entertaining their children nor do they have to spend every waking moment at their side. It seems that kids nowadays either get too much attention or no attention at all.

Making sacrifices for our children is one thing, feeling like our relationship with our spouse and our personal needs should ALWAYS take a backseat is quite another. That type of thinking does no good for anyone involved.

It's OK to say "what about me." In fact it's just as essential for your children as it is for you to do so. I'll stop now because I am starting to feel like Dear Abby (a syndicated columnist who solves everyone's problems).

Margaret

Dear Abby,

Did anyone tell you, you have a superb blog too.

Stavros

Margaret,

A blog is only as good as its readers and in this regard I have been very lucky.

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