“better”; or, A Brief (Rather Cryptic) Meditation on Human Flourishing

It was a long, full weekend between first and second weeks. As I make a to-do list just now, at the end of Sunday night, and reflect on all the pages I haven’t yet read for this week’s classes, I think about all the things I have done in the past three days: all the hours I’ve spent talking that I might have spent reading; all the hours I spent reading that I wish I could have spent talking, had my academic demands not presented themselves so pointedly; and the strange little pieces of insight and accomplishment I snatched out of an ordinary weekend of anxiety and mounting lists as I find myself confronted by the enormity of a semester’s worth of work still to come. But this weekend I had some rewarding conversations, to be sure; and I discovered that I seem to have some sort of bizarrely unexpected talent for improvisational vegan baking (I’ve certainly never been good at anything to do with kitchens before); and I helped someone in what seemed to me to be a very small way, just with a short list of technology-related questions to which I happened to know the answers, but which in answering I came to realize stood for far greater points to be made about human nature, about human flourishing, and about how to stay strong amidst deadlines and the endless pressure that is aspiring to academic perfection.

I was there to be of technical use because I was doing my usual routine in the dining hall, eating my unhealthy food and drinking my shitty coffee and talking to everyone, and thus I was in the reach of someone who needed someone to accost in order to have his need for small technical answers gratified. And it was a joy to me to spend some Saturday afternoon in so gratifying, because for the service I rendered him he repaid me in the most heartwarming and caring grateful conversation I am sure I have ever encountered from someone to whom I’m not closely blood-related. In more hours than the ones I spent on this small task, it is this someone more than any other who has instilled in me a sense of belonging and a sense of purpose. It would certainly be indiscreet to elaborate further, but perhaps the title of this post will give at least some readers a clue. Suffice to say that the task I was able to complete reminded me what I have learned in the past two years about doing one’s best, being one’s best, and using both these strivings to overcome the crippling insecurity of a neurotic life on the margins of the Ivy League. Suffice to say that when I feel as if I belong at Princeton, I know whom I ought to begin by thanking.

I lay out the story of my Saturday in the vaguest of terms so that I can go on to suggest that my Saturday is entwined inextricably with Princeton itself, and with the idea of Princeton, beyond the connections which the actors in this story, its setting, or indeed any psychological drama so superficial as my “legacy complex” would suggest. I cannot help but think that no other of the places I might have gone to university would have given me a dining hall where such an encounter of social democracy could occur; I cannot help but think that the culture of no other university would permit questions of “bettering” to be the takeaway from an afternoon playing at tech support, no matter the predispositions of my anecdote’s characters to considering such questions (and reader, those predispositions: they are many).

I have been thinking recently—particularly as I completed a survey about opportunities for women’s leadership at Princeton—about this university’s struggle to remake itself. Today Princeton is an institution profoundly concerned with the desire to right its past wrongs: to bring those it previously cast to the margins into the middle, to open its ranks to all who are entitled to enter, to make all its students feel as if they are welcome and valued. I know from my experiences and those of my friends that our ivory-towered four-year home is not always so very successful at fulfilling its promise of a clean break with a reprehensibly old-boys’-club past, but to look around the university today is to see those who would not have been allowed through its gates in the past; to walk through campus today is to feel as if one no longer has to fight quite so fiercely to belong; to be involved (even as an observer) in campus politics is to become closely acquainted with and invested in the desire to be better, to transcend past sins and poor judgment calls. I feel as if it is only here—in a place preoccupied with its own history, self-regarding and self-referential enough to make the call to progressive improvement into a kind of whig-history call to prayer—that Saturday afternoon tech support could become so clearly a call to arms in the war of careful self-improvement.

For reasons not entirely related to the train of thought running through my mind while I wrestled with network settings that Saturday, I came home once all was resolved and looked up the Greek word εὐδαιμονία. Transliterated “eudaimonia,” it’s a concept central to most of the ancient philosophers, including Plato and Aristotle and the Stoics. It could be translated as “happiness,” or, in a formulation I really happen to enjoy, “human flourishing.” The thing is that most of the canonical ancient philosophers disagreed as to what, precisely, εὐδαιμονία entailed; most of them disagreed as to how virtuous your life need be to be εὐδαιμον. But most, it seems to me (of course, I could be entirely wrong; all I did was read a few articles online), agreed on one thing: εὐδαιμονία was an end, a moral end, an aspirational end. Nirvana, but less absolute and more subjective and as secular as you want it to be. It’s a promise, and a call. And, for me, it’s what is at the end of a life of learning and teaching: a life of the deep interpersonal relationships only pedagogy can form, wherein perhaps attaining εὐδαιμονία rests upon listening to the words of your teachers as best as you can to make yourself better, and then taking careful notes and preparing your own lectures and doing as well by your students as your teachers have done for you.

I said to someone last night—in a conversation which began with my mentioning, briefly, my role as tech support in the course of my day—that I may eat with my friends, spread out across the campus, but I couldn’t imagine, for as long as my time at Princeton lasts, living anywhere else but the college that is my home. The weight of this declaration is only just sinking in 24 hours later, as two things occur to me. The first is that this must be because I cannot think of leaving this college until I have given back to it and its students all the spirit-sustaining goodness that it has given me. The second is that if Princeton’s administration should ever need proof that it is succeeding in its efforts to right its previous iterations’ wrongs, it need look no further than my testimony. I could fail my thesis two Junes hence; I could barely pass my way to commencement and kiss an academic career goodbye, and yet my undergraduate education would still have taught me the most important thing of all: that we all, universities and their teachers and students alike, must seek to be better, to be εὐδαιμον, and to our own selves to be true.

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