Alternatives to fear and angst
I set out on a snowshoe hike with an Aspen Institute seminar group last week on a perfect bluebird day. We strapped on the cumbersome footwear at Toklat in the Castle Creek Valley, and that immediately changed our moods.
Most of the group had never been on snowshoes. They were mostly urbanites who had never walked over a deep spring snowpack at 9,500 feet. The novelty of it had them laughing and joking. Selfies were snapped off by the dozens.
Watching this group tromp across the bright, undulating snow amid the slanting shadows of aspen trees, you would not have known of the dire news that morning. The coronavirus was on a steady climb, and the stock market was on an inverse curve. The Dow had just posted the biggest drop since 2008.
When we stopped for my usual opening talk, I knew what to deliver. I had thought about it that morning and found the answer when I stepped outside my home as the first rays of sun illuminated the Seven Castles on the Fryingpan Valley with a warm, orange glow.
The air was mild, and there was an earthy fragrance. Our bird feeder was alive with towhees, nuthatches and chickadees. Robins had just returned and were strutting our lawn, feeling for worms where the snow had just melted.
In a garden bed against the south side of our home, I noticed the first green chutes of daffodils pushing up through the loam I had laid over the beds when I put them to rest in the fall. The natural world was energized and emphatic with new life.
“What are we doing in an aspen forest snowshoeing over 3 feet of snow when the world is mired in uncertainty?” I asked my group. “How can we not feel a growing sense of unease and foreboding?”
My hikers were attentive, waiting for an answer. These were all successful people from many walks of life, representing broad ethnic diversity. They were in Aspen to conjoin their disparate views in a thoughtful and reflective seminar.
They were school administrators, health care experts, social workers, cultural reformers, social justice activists, economists and more. They felt the same unease I did and shared deep concerns for humanity.
“It’s springtime in the mountains,” I said. “Nature is reaffirming life. We are part of nature, and we are not always in control. But even today, we can feel an uplift from nature, so let’s walk with that in mind.”
I mentioned the Great Books seminar series I had just co-moderated at the Institute. I asked if anyone knew the word that defined our Great Books theme this year — “eudemonia.” One man offered a partial answer: “A life of virtue.”
Eudemonia is a Greek word for happiness in the deepest philosophical sense, of fulfillment achieved through a virtue, purpose and meaning. Eudemonia is happiness beyond material dross and corporeal gratification.
Webster defines it like this: “A person’s state of excellence characterized by objective flourishing across a lifetime, and brought about through the exercise of moral virtue, practical wisdom, and rationality.”
Eudemonia stands above the rise and fall of financial markets and even fluctuations in health. As “deaths of despair” foment rising suicide rates, as mood-adjusting psychotropics are the prescription of choice, as the American Dream spirals into despair for millions, happiness remains a conscious choice.
This is happiness in the Aristotelian sense of intelligence coupled with contemplative thought — a happiness that transcends cultural institutions and social mores. Such holistic happiness goes beyond the commercialized, digitized, instantly gratified lives many seek today and yet realize are often empty of promise.
Finding solace in an unhinged world is a challenge — and a necessity if we’re to stay sane. Hinging happiness on the stock market, cellphone apps, social media, alcohol, TV and superficial social norms is not the end game.
As simplistic as it sounds, recalibrating happiness starts when we take a moment to step outside, hear the birds sing, feel the day begin and realize why we live here. It is springtime in the mountains, and there is peace and beauty in our world.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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