by Amrit Kasten-Daryanani, Ph.D.
At Wakefield, we have long revered traditions of classical education. Our students are taught not only to absorb and memorize facts; they are taught to analyze arguments, to think critically, and to express themselves articulately. When considering habits that foster human flourishing, it is only fitting that we honor our tradition and turn to the origins of the word in order to investigate its deeper meanings.
Latin and Old French give us identical translations: to blossom, to grow, to prosper, to thrive. The image that comes from the Old French floris, a flowering stem, is a poetic combination of contradictions. It embodies delicate beauty caught in a moment of radiant life even as this life is tied to the enduring cycles of the land, rhythms that are the very heartbeat of our good earth. These rhythms are bound up with birth and new beginnings, life and death, and moments of youth, vibrant maturity, endings and decay. They bring ever present change and are in constant motion.
Seen from this perspective, human flourishing takes on many dimensions and becomes extraordinarily complex. Many paths come into view, each leading to a different aspect of this process. Some of these paths are exceptionally beautiful and meander through territory that is both gracious and charming. They invite gentle footsteps and lingering appreciation. They offer places to rest and gather strength, all while providing us with lessons regarding gratitude and the incandescent beauty of interconnectedness. Other paths are unsettling; they lead to cliffs so high we cannot see the boundaries of the peaks that stretch skyward, and offer unsure footing that slows our steps. We look at these paths and wonder if we want to traverse them, sometimes becoming filled with doubts and fears about the way forward. Do we really want to understand the causes and conditions in our lives that bring us pain when they come dressed up as pleasure and fun? Are we ready to embrace a habit of wellness if it means giving up a familiar and comfortable habit that eventually may lead to suffering?
From one perspective this might seem daunting and the obvious question comes to mind: why should human flourishing ever be difficult? But seen from a more mature view we understand that flourishing as a goal encompasses the entirety of our being. While beauty and gentleness are a wonderful aspect of life, the very nature of our existence also brings us periods of great difficulties and hardships. We all must face times when overwhelming storms of negative emotions threaten to overtake us, brought on by the inevitable losses and misunderstandings that are part of life. A vital component of wellness is being able to meet the difficulties and tragedies that come into our lives with vitality, strength, and wholeness. Learning how to travel along the narrow ways of despair is just as important as learning how to stop and take in beauty. Learning how to grieve with an open heart is just as important as learning how to be joyful with a full heart.
It is especially important to take a broad view when considering the flourishing and well-being of our children. It is easier to instill a positive habit in childhood than to undo a harmful habit in adolescence and adulthood. Specific positive habits have the potential to turn into protective factors, a social science term that the American Psychological Association defines as “a clearly defined behavior or constitutional, psychological, environmental or other characteristic that is associated with a decreased probability that a particular disease or disorder will develop in an individual, that reduces the severity of a pathological condition, or that mitigates the effects of stress generally.” When we are truly committed to cultivating well-being, we take seriously the need for creating fertile, productive ground for healthy habits and healthy attitudes that can support positive development. We understand that providing the conditions for protective factors to emerge will help our children grow in courage and in strength, two attributes that are essential for well-being when they face the inevitable temptations, trials, and tribulations that are part of life.
Taken together all of the many paths of human flourishing offer us a grand territory, a magnificent interior country that is waiting to be fully explored. We only learn the entire territory when we are willing to travel all of the paths, the gentle and the uncertain, the beautiful and the harsh. Understanding the existence of this complexity is an important first step when embracing wellness and wholeness so we are not lured into thinking the journey will be all goodness and light; no, the journey will be hard work as well. The end result, the deepening of our own humanity and the expansion of our self-awareness, is well worth the effort. Most importantly, when we are able to share this journey with our children we are gifting them a foundation for the self that supports a life that is filled with strength, vitality, joy, and purpose.