Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Pursuit of Happiness

Following the inauguration of a new President of the United States, what better time to reflect on the founding principles of this country? 'We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men [and women, incidentally] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness'. Ah, goosebumps!

Last week it was brought to my attention that Jefferson (and the other signers of the Declaration of Independence) was basing his ideas of 'happiness' on Aristotle's 'Ethics', of which he owned a heavily annotated copy (in the original Greek, of course). This isn't any surprise - of course Jefferson studied Aristotle. It was expected at that time. What is more enlightening is to think about what Aristotle actually meant by the concept. He used the word 'eudaimonia', (which if you break it up must surely mean 'spirit of good'), and he interpreted it as human flourishing, self-actualization, knowing who you are and what you believe and having the courage to live according to your beliefs. That is the principle that was invoked in the Declaration of Independence, and interestingly enough it is also the principle we invoke at Summers-Knoll when we talk about a child's happiness. What we are seeking here is not the superficial happiness of every child at every minute of the day, a happiness brought about by having everything go smoothly, never coming into disagreement or irritation with another child, never having to try anything demanding or disagreeable, never having to experience conflict. To aim for that kind of happiness would be a huge disservice to our children. Watch Will's students responding to stories written by Sudanese refugees, or debating the meaning of life as they prepare for class. Watch Elaine's students racing to read books that will bring donations to kids in need. Watch Susan's class in math grappling with concepts of fairness (or unfairness) as they learn about probability. Watch them find power in helping each other through their 'Tribes' activities. Watch what they each come up with when they discover the intensity of Degas, or the ancient resonance of stories from Homer and Ovid. The happiness we're looking for here comes from self-actualization: the quest to become the most 'themselves' - and the best 'themselves' - that they can possibly be. We want to foster in our children the insatiable curiosity of the Elephant's Child (if you haven't read that story, it's a must. Look for it here), to help them grow to new awareness, new understanding, to develop in them the ability to think deeply, flexibly and creatively, to make connections, to explore their beliefs and have the courage to live accordingly, to discover passion in knowledge, skill, and service. (Albert Schweitzer famously said, 'The only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve.' I think his notion of happiness fits right in here.)

If you have a chance, go here, and listen to what Ben Dunlap (president of Wofford College) has to say about the living of a full life. The people he describes and whose stories he tells did not necessarily live the most comfortable lives. They experienced suffering and injustice - more than we may be equipped to understand. Their happiness certainly didn't come from getting everything their own way. They found fulfillment through a passionate, empathetic engagement with life and an unfailing curiosity and zest for new experience. That's what we're shooting for here: the pursuit of happiness as an open-hearted exploration of life.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, that was incredibly moving, Joanna. I so appreciate your thoughts!