A recent Facebook post captured my attention. The photograph was simple: it shows the path of a young African-American woman’s work history through her employer’s name tags. This woman’s name is Faye Lewis – I do not know her – though the photograph tells me her first job was as an employee of Kentucky Fried Chicken: Her second was as its Manager. Faye served as a Housekeeper in what looks to be a senior care home. Then, she became a nursing assistant, a licensed practical nurse and the last two name tags reveal her status as a registered nurse. Perhaps, the fact that I too have kept such a list caught my attention. The list has often served me as a reminder of many things.
Reading the comments posted, I was struck by the divide. There were two very different interpretations of her story: one narrative applauded her rise. There was an appreciation of her striving, and the diligence it took for her to climb that ladder. There was a celebration of her perseverance through a growth process that was clearly neither easy nor costless.
The second narrative damned the process of her rise: it stressed the series of low-paying jobs this young woman had to “endure.” In the second narrative, her story represented some oppressive, nefarious, external forces that conspired against her causing her to plod along in a never-ending series of “shitty” jobs. Her time; her efforts; her toil, led to what? Well, just one more “shitty” job” as a Registered Nurse. The gap between these two interpretations is cavernous. How could such divergent perspectives be as dominant as they were? Unwilling to expediently assume evil on either side, I yearned for some cogent explanation.
I found myself thinking of a word - eudaimonia – that I discovered a number of years ago. It is a word that has come to mean a great deal to me. Per Wikipedia, “Eudaimonia, sometimes anglicized as eudaemonia or eudemonia, is a Greek word commonly translated as happiness or welfare; however, "human flourishing or prosperity" has been proposed as a more accurate translation.”
While eudaimonia could be viewed as a static, end-state, I’d argue such an interpretation robs the word of fundamental significance. Given the ebb-and-flow we all feel, regarding our own happiness or welfare, I’ve embraced a more dynamic interpretation stressing and celebrating the ongoing striving that eudaimonia requires. Put another way, if human flourishing were static, flourishing as a word, would lose all vitality.
Personally, I have come to believe that the fruit of achievement is gained primarily throughout the journey. The end – the achievement itself - is a static goal; though it never seems to quite be, the end. Experientially, who among us, once the goal is achieved, finds themselves forever content? Forever fulfilled? Forever satisfied? Perhaps I am an anomaly, though I doubt it. I find myself moving on to my next project, the next higher altitude. All the while, enjoying the view from the altitude just achieved. In “the end” there is no end. The joys of achievement come in dribs and drabs, not in discreet, neatly-bound packages. Fulfillment requires us to engage in the process as we travel down a path which we may or may not know a priori.
As an example, I am a university professor who went down the traditional path of tenure. I performed above expectations at my institution according to my peers in teaching, research, and service. I achieved tenure and I appreciated that accomplishment. Though, at least for me, the most striking feature of tenure, six months later, was how indifferent I was to it. I felt melancholic, a major challenge was surmounted, and I began to fear contentment more than I did risk. Through a series of circumstances - a static interpretation - or a series of opportunities that presented themselves to me because I was engaged and entrepreneurially aware in a Kirznerian sense - a dynamic interpretation - I was offered the chance to help build a new public, academic institution.
The glitch? I had to move from my safe and secure tenured position to a system of five year, “drop-dead” contracts. I hesitated briefly until they told me they would renegotiate salary at the end of the contract if they wanted to keep me. I jumped.
Perhaps, it was because of my aforementioned melancholy. Perhaps, it was because of what I considered to be the poor leadership and my distaste for operating under it for years of my life. Perhaps, it was because it was reared in an environment of entrepreneurship (my prior assumption was that people who don’t do their jobs should be fired and I had already seen a full dose of academic deadwood.) I knew then, as I do know, that risk is ever-present. However, if I strove, and if I was successful, change would be my friend, and not my enemy. Many of my colleagues were incredulous: they could not believe I set down the Holy Grail and walked away. Perhaps, I also knew, that at least for me, a riskless life was one I did not wish to live.
Which circles us back into my explanation of the two conflicting narratives.
At least for me, and I suspect for this young African-American woman, the goal is to be celebrated, but to work through the process and to be present within it, is the most important aspect of achievement and fulfillment. The process of achieving a goal is inevitably a dynamic one filled with learning from attempts, mistakes, assessments, and reassessments. Though we can prevail nobly only against dynamic odds; static ones are far too low a bar for fully living one’s life. The path can be difficult but it provides learning, self-awareness, humility, and fulfillment. All are valuable human characteristics that are nourished by the process and stand outside of any specific goal. They are, in short, a part of human flourishing;
As is often the case for me the great philosopher/economist of the Scottish Enlightenment, Adam Smith provides insights. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments Smith writes:
The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.
What do I take away from this passage? Each of us – as individual human beings – requires space for autonomous and independent action. The path prescribed by another is inevitably barren. We have one life to live, and it is our own. A life without our own choices, our own dreams, our own path is a life of subservience. To flourish as a human being we require agency.
In the first paragraph of this essay I use the words “she became” in reference to Faye Lewis. Consider these words carefully. What does it mean when we modify “to become” with a personal pronoun, whatever yours may be? For anyone to achieve eudaimonia who, but you, can paint the canvas? Surely, you will face constraints, walls, barriers, and the occasional unscrupulous scoundrel. But to achieve human flourishing, to strive for eudaimonia, the process itself – along with its inevitable accompanying joys and sorrows - must be embraced, not “endured.”
The path of another person, a family, a tribe or a state is inherently not yours. Worse yet, the other’s path is nearly always some mix of paternal if not parental focus. The other’s path is inevitably more theirs than it is yours. Chameleon-like, the other easily adopts the dual platforms of hubris and condescension. Exogenous forces are almost inevitably cudgel-like when they don’t get their way. That path must be our own and not the path of another.
As Adam Smith notes, attempts to move another person through the game of life from one end-state to another is a fool’s errand. It is coercive; it is ineffective; it is corrosive to the development of human character. While continually framed about you, in the end, it is always about selfish them. “Social engineering”, “knowing what is best”, “nudging”, “the modern nanny state”, all are designed for good and noble purposes in the eyes of those who wield them. But they are logjams in the river of life, and they too easily block our own journey and our own achievement of eudaimonia.
No one but a masochist is likely to be satisfied by any “achievement” gained through the exogenous force or will of another. I’ll stake this clam: The framework of static, end-state, hubristic paternalism will never offer eudaimonia. Like slavery, it is as harmful to both master and slave.
Should I ever have the chance to meet Faye Lewis, I will soundly congratulate her for her fabulous striving, for her inevitably imperfect, yet wildly-admirable journey. I will know that among the ups-and-downs there were flashes of contentment, acknowledgement, and celebration. I will refuse to damn her for her now “shitty” job as an RN. I will celebrate Faye Lewis for her journey throughout her life and hope that she is continuing to reach for eudaimonia. She may not know the word, but I have no doubt that she will understand the process and all that it involved, with due and apt pride.