She squeezes my hand, and lets go. Her hands raised up to her either side of her facean adorable gesture she does a lotleaning on the table with a palm on each cheek, as she listens to my answer to her question. I can’t help but smile.
“Well,” I tell her, “a year ago, or a few years ago, I would have given you a different answer.” And then I think for a few moments, and in the end I cannot find a word in Korean (of course, for my Korean is not that good), or in French (that language I am losing, or perhaps already have lost) or even in English for what has become central in my life. I think back and come upon it, the Greek word that I’ve not heard or said for so long, though I saw it recently on a webpage I sometimes look at: eudaimonia.
That’s it. It’s eudaimonia. It’s that strange intersection of joy (the word that is closest in English to what I wanted to say, though it’s not joy as a feeling, but joy as a process encompassing decisions and the experience of the process of those decisions… a way of life, joy as a process), and peace and contentment and choosing virtue and compassion and whatever your deepest self sings to you.
So I smile, and tell her that I don’t know of a word in English for what is most important in my life. And I ask her if she knows the word eudaimonia, which of course she and most people on earth don’t know. I often ask people if they know something as a way of introducing it into conversation, and some people take it the wrong way, but she doesn’t. She knows about mirror neurons and history and she even knows my old haunt in Montrealit was, by chance perhaps, her haunt too, at a time when I’d long been gone from the place. She knows so many things… but who knows eudaimonia? A few philosophy students and philosophy hobbyists like me. Maybe fifty people in this country know that word, or perhaps a hundred. Perhaps I’m being arrogant and two hundred individuals know it. I’m always asking her, “Do you know about ____?” and she laughs and though maybe she thinks it’s always no when I ask this question, the answer is actually more often yes than with most people I know. As I tell her what the word means, how I have this crazy notion that joy is the center of my life, joy and the choice of kindness and compassion as a way of living that joy, she smiles at me with this happy look, her head resting on her palms. The look on her face is… I don’t know how to say, except it almost looks like a look of recognition, seeing a face half-remembered from long ago.
And I ask her what’s most important to her, and she smiles and tells me that it’s about knowing who she really is, what she’s meant to do with her life. And it occurs to me, as she explains this, that that is also what eudaimonia means, the flourishing of what you truly are, the most honest being-yourself that is possible; but I don’t tell her that. I smile, and listen, and marvel that such people as us should ever cross paths. How much more miraculous than the miracle I reflected on months before: I remember walking down the street outside the little cafe where we sit and talk. Out there in the dark, months before, I marveled at the fact I should even feel the snows of Korean winter on my face at all, this place so far from everything I’d ever known as a child, so far from anything I’d known even as a young man. And this evening, I marvel at finding such fragments of joy as never would have walked into my poems years ago.
And later, as we’re walking in the street, I’m hearing Delius in my head, “On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring,” remembering being told that spring time was coming, to the world and for me. Sunlight pours from the sky, or that’s how it feels, anyway, though the day is a little cold and none too sunny. I am touched of course by that sense of calm, that sense of calm-down, too. Patience is like all virtues, difficult yet delicious when one learns it. And I realize life cannot forever be led like poems… but that a life worth leading is one whose poems are honest and true. I am doing what I told her is the key to finding who you are: listening deeply, honestly, without fear, to what is deep inside you, the voice that sings in the soft darkness for only you to hear. The voice that sings who you are, if only you listen bravely and calmly and with the strength to honestly want joy.
And it feels good.