Makarios

Our culture has its own quirks, whether we notice them or not – in fact, the ones we are blissfully unaware of are the ones that have the potential to make the most silent impact.

Our language defines us, whether we choose to let it or not. In our first few months of life, billions of synapses form in our brain and the ones we don’t use gradually fade. We have the ability to speak any language when we’re born but by the time we’re a few years old, if we haven’t heard certain sounds or words, they become more difficult to learn later on. This becomes a grounding principle when we realise that our words are our primary means of expression.

It is one of life’s great mysteries: the feelings, emotions and experiences that we don’t have words to describe. It is why music is so formative – it transcends language and can speak and evoke response without the need for words. But words are also telling – if we have many words for something, we value it enough to try to describe it as best we can. For example, we have one word for rice. To us, it’s rice whether it’s in the field, in a bag or on a plate. But in Asia, you have padi, beras and nasi – the distinction between each is important enough to those who speak that language to make sure they are adequately represented.

So why is it that we only have one word for love? And one word for happiness?

“The Greeks had a word for the feeling one has when one is happy: makarios. It is a feeling of contentment, when one knows one’s place in the world and is satisfied with that place. If your life has been fortunate, you should feel makarios.” (Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, p.75)

It is a feeling that is so profound and important that the Greeks gave it its own word.

The authors go on to say: “In Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said that if you are a peacemaker, then you are makarios. Since English doesn’t have a word for this feeling, translators have struggled to find one. What do you call it when you feel happy, content, balanced, harmonious and fortunate? Well, translators have concluded, you are blessed... Jesus meant, ‘If you are a peacemaker, then you are in your happy place.’ It just doesn’t work well in English. Alas, here is the bigger problem: maybe the reason we North Americans struggle to find makarios in our personal lives is because we don’t have a word in our native language to denote it.”

Our expectation of one word being able to sum up our current emotion and the important things in our life, also influences how we interpret phrases and whole sentences.

“Paul struggles for a Greek word to describe the fruit (singular) of the Spirit. He describes it as a ‘love-joy-peace-patience-kindness-goodness-faithfulness-gentleness-self-control kind of fruit’ (Gal 5:22). Paul is not giving us a list of various fruits, from which we may pick a few. Rather, he gives us a list of words that circle around the one character of Spirit-filled life he is trying to describe.” (Misreading Scripture… p.74)

I will continue to enjoy those moments that words cannot describe and appreciate them for their awe-someness. I will also continue trying my best to use the words at my disposal to articulate thoughts and emotions. All the while, I acknowledge that sometimes, I need to experience and see beyond the words to the indescribable beauty of life and truth in the Bible and all around me every day.

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Two sides

In today’s world, there’s a lot of pressure to choose a side. Whom do you believe? Which version is the truth? Which political party will you support? 

The more I’m given an opportunity to pick a side – a work conflict, an election, a public debate – the more I realise that there are always two sides. Most people do not deliberately set out to inflict pain. They just come at the same problems from very different angles.

When you’re the one at the heart of the matter or if it directly impacts someone you love, then it can be excruciatingly hard to see the other side. But there is always another side.

Impulsive, ignorant comments about those with opposing views anger me beyond belief. What is missing in our politics, our workplaces, our culture, is not generosity or care, but understanding amidst dissent. Understanding that we are all different; that we all have our own stories to tell, our own priorities, our own joys, our own heartaches, our own passions and our own anxieties. 

These inevitably lead to disagreement but without conflicting viewpoints, how would we hold one another to account or uncover the best way forward? Without diversity of opinion, how could we celebrate achievement or understand the world around us? 

Of course, there are some who break this mould; who are intent on causing harm and abuse an incredibly misplaced understanding to excuse inhumane behaviour. Those are not the ones to whom this applies. There are some things that will always be wrong, no matter which side you’re on. 

But most of us do not conform to those extreme, judgemental and completely irrational, horrific groups. Most of us are just flawed human beings, feeling our way through an increasingly capricious and confusing maze of life.
We live in a broken world. No one person, party, friend or colleague can make the right decision every time or create a world that works for everyone. It’s on us as individuals to step into the breach, put others before ourselves, make the most informed choices we can and always to remember: there are two sides.

A series of ‘nows’

Hubby and I had coffee with a colleague of mine on New Year’s Day. Somehow the two boys, both quite philosophical and driven by a sense of justice, balance and opportunity, began talking about culture and lifestyle. Some of their chatter was concocting a liberal utopia, acknowledging that humans were not designed to work 9-5 at a desk – work hard, yes, but not to the confines of a modern regime. This developed into a discussion around mindfulness, meditation and how our minds have been cultivated into viewing the world through our own unique filters. We perceive everything around us in relation to our beliefs, understandings and knowledge – the combination and design of which is different for everyone and therefore how we perceive the world is also unique to the make-up of our minds.

According to my colleague, there is no such thing as the past – it does not exist as a physical reality – nor is there such thing as a future. Rather, life is made up of a series of nows. While many flaws can be found in this simplistic idea, it does change the way we perceive our days. My colleague took this one step further to say that there is, as a result, no such thing as a problem. There is simply a choice to be made and if something arises from the choice, it becomes a situation that you are dealing with in the now. Problems and how we perceive them are, again, a creation of our culture.

Whether or not you adhere to his ideology, there is certainly something to be gained from it. If nothing else, it encourages us to live in the moment and truly experience our every day and I, for one, am all for a little more present-mindedness in this competitive, future-obsessed society.