Every Single Day…

habitSome time ago, I was reading a book by Gretchen Rubin when I came across this phrase: The days are long, but the years are short.

These words resonated with me — not least because at the time that I read them, I was the mother of two pre-schoolers. My days seemed to be filled with repetitive, mindless tasks that revolved around keeping my children happy, healthy and (by obvious extension) clean, and that work — because it definitely is work — was often relentless and mind-numbing. The days were long (and the nights could be even longer), but the years were flying by with alarming rapidity.

Don’t get me wrong: being a parent is — without question — the single most rewarding role I have ever taken on, and this post is not about to descend into an extended diatribe about just how hard those long days and nights can be. (Besides, in my experience, even when a child has behaved absolutely diabolically while awake, that same child can somehow, miraculously, completely restore your faith in and love for them once they are soundly asleep — particularly if they stay that way for an extended period.)

No, the reason I recall that maddening yet magical part of my life is because I chose HABIT as Blue Jai’s Word of the Month for August.

What now? Parenting is a habit?

Not at all. But I have been reading Gretchen Rubin’s book Better Than Before, which tackles habits and habit formation head on, and brought to my mind the wisdom of the ancients, specifically this observation from Aristotle:

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.

Now that my children are growing up and increasingly self-sufficient, I would prefer not to think about the tasks I performed with increasing Aristotelian excellence when they were smaller, save to say — as a random example — that I reckon I could wrangle just about any kid into a five-point harness car seat while blindfolded. Possibly even one handed.

habit 2Aristotle’s adage did make me think, however, about the things that I repeatedly do now — because these, my friends, are my habits. Sure, there’s all the obvious basic personal hygiene and basic living habits like showering daily, cleaning my teeth morning and night, eating a decent breakfast, that sort of thing. But what else, I wondered, do I do every single day?

Well, I read…and I write…and…if I’m totally honest I probably check my social media accounts…

I mean, what do you do every single day?!

And that brought me to another one of Aristotle’s little gems: Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.

When we know ourselves, we know what repeatedly do. We recognise our habits, good and bad, and know which of these we want to cultivate with further repetition and which we want to eliminate. One of my friends, for example, makes a habit of keeping a gratitude journal, of taking time each evening to record what she is grateful for every single day. She also encourages her children to say what they’re grateful for too, and even if they don’t yet write it down she’s hoping, by repetition, to help instil the same habit in them.

Another friend makes herself a properly brewed cup of coffee every single morning. For her, this is a good habit: not only is it something that she enjoys drinking, but she also enjoys the ritual of making it. For her, it is an important act of self care (not to mention the fact that it provides a caffienated kick-start to her day). And that’s where self-knowledge kicks in too — my friend also knows that drinking coffee all day long is not good for her (or anyone), so she relishes that morning cup all the more.

Needless to say, the same combination of repetition and self-knowledge can assist in a business setting, too. Religiously checking your business bank balance won’t improve your cashflow, for example, but billing clients regularly, offering multiple methods of payment and chasing your debtors often will all help. It’s about knowing what you need to do, and repeating the necessary actions to make those things happen.

So I ask again: what do you do every single day?

Does it match up with what you know you could be doing every day?

Because, just like when I wrote about eudaimonia and human flourishing, I think those ancient Greeks were onto something. Sure — for a modern take on it, check out Gretchen Rubin’s book (she really does unpack the whole habit bag, even if I did get slightly annoyed about her frequent references to wearing yoga pants all the time), but I think — as usual — what we’re all aiming for is what human beings have been aiming for for thousands of years. And yes, the Greeks had a word for it too:

 

habit 3

So I wish you well with all those things you do repeatedly this August, and with the habits your self-knowledge asks you to cultivate in the future.

Sophrosyne here we come!

The Well-Daemoned Creative

EudaimoniaThe Ancient Greeks, it seems to me, knew stuff.

Lots of stuff.

Especially the sort of stuff that goes on inside human heads. In fact, thousands of years ago, they had sorted out more stuff than I can even imagine (and, as Han Solo once said to Luke Skywalker, I can imagine a quite a bit).

And they also had words for things to explain just how well they understood stuff — amazing words like eudaimonia. Sure, it might be a bit of mouthful to the average English speaking Joe or Jai, but when I discovered the word (this morning, straight after the courier delivered a parcel of books to my front door), I felt those teeny tiny hairs on the back of my neck rise. In a good way, people.

Eudaimonia translates as “human flourishing”, and was used in ancient Greece to describe the highest degree of happiness, a state of being characterised by not only by happiness itself, but also by health and prosperity. Sounds good, doesn’t it?

But it’s the etymology of the word that gives my inner geek the tingles: it comes from the Greek words eu, meaning ‘good’ and daimon, meaning ‘guardian spirit’. And the exciting part, as Elizabeth Gilbert explains in her book Big Magic, is that when you put those words together you get “well-daemoned”, or “nicely taken care of by some external divine creative spirit guide”. (And, yes, you now have to imagine me delivering my best Molly Meldrum impression when I tell you to do yourself a favour and get a copy of Big Magic…it’s an absorbing read).

But, as usual, I digress — let’s get back to eudaimonia. The idea that creative inspiration is something external to one’s self is not unique to the Greeks. The Romans, those other giants of the ancient world, also externalised the concept. As Gilbert says:

The Romans had a specific term for that helpful house elf. They called it your genius — your guardian deity, the conduit of your inspiration. Which is to say, the Romans didn’t believe that an exceptionally gifted person was a genius; they believed that an exceptionally gifted person had a genius.

In this ego-driven twenty-first century world, the ancient perspective is remarkably refreshing: that creativity is bestowed, by a genius the artist might be obliged to thank for the inspiration. Or, conversely, should the artist’s work be found somehow lacking, the same genius could be called upon to take some of the blame. Takes the pressure off, doesn’t it, creative types? Pesky old ego is removed from the equation…and, in Gilbert’s words once again, the artist is protected: “Protected from the corrupting influence of praise. Protected from the corrosive effects of shame.”

Inside JobBut there is a catch.

(You know there always is).

In order to get close to anything resembling eudaimonia, this highest level of human happiness, you have to do the hard yards too. It’s not as simple as having some Jiminy Cricket-like muse sitting on your shoulder telling you what to do — there’s not much point in having an external creative spirit guiding your creative pursuits if you don’t actively pursue them. Not surprisingly, human flourishing doesn’t just happen: it demands that we show up, that we find time, that we live authentically — in alignment with those things that make us our best selves.

 

AristotleAnyone who creates regularly and deliberately will tell you that yes, there are those fabled golden moments when whatever you are creating flows from you effortlessly. They are magical moments, and I do mean that literally. But the point is you have to be there, already creating, for those moments to happen. And no one can do that for you. You have to have the courage to do it for yourself.

It’s about following your passion, in whatever small moments are available to you. It’s about discovering, as Aristotle suggested, where the needs of the world and your talents intersect, and finding your vocation. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not advocating chucking in your job, leaving your family or withdrawing from society to pursue the creative: my strong suspicion is that you can’t get close to eudaimonia unless you’re actively involved in all those things, and in whatever you are inspired to create.

So find the time, if you can, to do what makes your soul sing.

ScrapsListen to that funny little guardian spirit — the one who has either been waiting patiently for you, or has been yammering away at you to do something for so long that it might just fall off your shoulder in shock when you finally pick up that paintbrush, or write that poem, or sew that dress.

Let’s honour creativity and make it an essential part of our lives — for our happiness, health and prosperity.

Let’s be more than humans being.

Let’s become humans flourishing.