I am typically inspired by the people who come for spiritual direction. The fact that they are seeking growth in the spiritual life and humble enough to request guidance or companionship in the effort is pretty amazing to me. Their ‘seeking’ will help them to flourish within the soul, to become happier persons and to contribute from the depths of their being to God’s plan for themselves and others whom they influence.
We are intended to flourish. So says Aristotle and Jesus and Martha Nussbaum, contemporary philosopher, and activist. A good mix, to be sure! Aristotle, that venerable ancient thinker, provided much in virtue and ethics which are still studied today. He said that flourishing is the highest good one can aspire to, desirable for its own sake rather than something else – think money, ambition, power. For him, “the ability to live a good life” was all that mattered, and it entailed virtue, practical wisdom, excellence in whatever you can do that is satisfying and helpful to yourself and others. If you think that Aristotle’s paradigm is a bit out-of-date, you might want to reconsider since several Ivy League business schools apply it generously and it has found its way to the scholarship of well-known business thinkers such as Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize winner in Economics and Thomas Lamont Professor and Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University. It is important to know that Aristotle avoided discussion of ‘production,’ in his theory of flourishing. In other words, it is not as important to produce something as it is simply to have the ability to produce it and opportunity to do so.
Jesus spent his ministry helping people to flourish. He was the iconoclast against powerful political and religious forces that kept people in poverty with atrocious taxation, slave labor, poor health. For Jesus, healing was all about flourishing. If the blind can see and the lame can walk, they are given immense freedom to live fully. They can earn a living, they can raise their families, they can do what God wants all of us to do: love other humans and our loving Creator freely and happily. We cannot have a faith of love without each of us being able to flourish.
Martha Nussbaum has created what is called the ‘capabilities approach’ to flourishing. She has written that for a democracy to remain stable we need more than “…detached moral principles. [We need] to cultivate certain emotions and teach people to enter empathetically into others’ lives.” She has argued persuasively that we must consider people who are differently abled as capable of the highest fulfillment possible for them. But others must provide these opportunities empathetically. I’m thinking of Special Olympics where differently abled contestants pour all their heart and physical strength into competition that is the envy of people like me who manage a few push ups on the living room floor! She argues the same for animal rights and the environment, categories without the ability to argue for themselves but totally reliant on our empathy. Keep that in mind as we face legislation on global warming and the ruthless killing of endangered species for sport. There is an innocence at the core of these categories that we have no right to ignore or exploit. They have their own capabilities, as Nussbaum says, and “…their freedom to achieve well-being is of primary importance.” Their innocence is that they are at the mercy of us—the homo sapiens who are anything but wise in our relationship to them. They look at us innocently as they stare down the barrel of the rifle or the net and spear of the capture. They are at our mercy, not our disposal.
Thinking of flourishing and the extraordinary upheavals on our world today, I have come to a vision I do not like but which challenges me to do something more. My vision is this: Most of the world’s population is poor, despite advancements in Western nations. In my vision, I lift the poor in my hands, and I see they are women and children. They are all colors and religions. It is the same in advanced nations: I lift my hands and see the poor are mostly women and children. And yet there are women in these groups who are considered educated, and some are even vocal in their advocacy as they are denied access to the full rights of some institutions in which they live and serve. Joan Chittister, OSB, has given words to my vision. “Two-thirds of the poor of the world are women, two-thirds of the illiterate of the world are women and two-thirds of the hungry of the world are women. Oppression of half of the human race cannot be explained as an accident. Oppression is a plan. Oppression is a philosophical position. Oppression is a theological posture, a theological schema, a theological concept made holy because some have said it is so.” Awakenings by Joan Chittister, OSB.
For this week, what can you do to deepen your own call toward personal flourishing? Can you explore spiritual direction? Can you take that class you always wanted to take? Can you join a group with a specific focus: a Bible study, a book club? Can you help others to flourish by learning more, volunteering in any local or church group that helps the needy?
We must pray for a change of heart for political leaders who put profit before flourishing and we must work politically to challenge them to the faith-oriented way of thinking and acting. This is the hardest challenge of all. But we must do it and it includes our faith, our Church.