Being well, welling up
What is it, a young client asks, to be well – truly well? The question needs a true response – a complete and honest answer. And the first thing to say is, “That’s a very good question.” I’m thinking at that point that nothing else is immediately true – not yet.
The good news is that the question signals a belief in wellness as at least a possibility, the essential first step in knowing about such a thing as well-being: a vigorous, glad eudaimonia. This is more than the flourish of happiness, comfort and health, prosperity and wealth – all these are products of an attitude more passive than assertive. True well-being is generous, with a lively spirit. Aristotle believed that eudaimonia depended not only upon a pleasant life but also upon an introspective life, and a life of political action.
The 16th-Century Christian mystic Saint Francis de Sales had said, “Be who you are, and be that well” – do what you do on purpose, and with good reason. In the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, Christ told us we will be saved by bringing out what is true within us, “but if you do not find that within you, you will succumb.” It is for us to look into our inner self to find what is true, and to express that.
Being well is a hearty interaction of our selves with external circumstances over which we have no control; we neither turn away from this encounter with life, nor are we overwhelmed. We do not react, we reply, in a full-throated response to circumstance, rather than in a self-pitying reaction to what we think to be the invading force of some hostile nature. Nature is neither hostile nor affectionate, and is often as uncomfortable as it is invigorating.
Disease – disorder brought by damage to the physical body with a concomitant sense of helplessness and loss of personal agency – seems contrary to the sense of well-being. But learning to manage the disease can bring back a sense of control, when its pain and limitation is experienced as a condition rather than as a disability. It is an exhilarating, dangerous planet that we live upon, demanding a rigorous, healthy life – one that draws upon resources deep within to confront challenges out there.
There is probably an undiscovered common root far back in the early Germanic languages that associates the words “well” and “whole,” suggested by the hole in the ground that we call a well. But of course, a well is much more than a hole that is dug into the earth: we’re after something important to us down there, something nourishing – and so we open a portal through which what we want will well up. We open our world to the resource of an unseen world within, upon which our world depends.
There is unrest down there. Springs and fountains, geysers and earthquakes tell of a furiously raging peristalsis deep beneath us. Tectonic plates ride up against and across one another, lifted by an immense boiling sea of magma whose seething tides drive the necessary rotation of our planet, creating our measured seasons, and the duration of our years.
I tell all this to tell you the same thing is happening right there within your body, just now, as you are reading this. The many interactive systems upon which you depend – the alimentary, the nervous, the respiratory and hormonal, and all the others – churn and flow, find turbulence and find pooling. Your very life depends upon them. They carry you, and with that make you well.
There is likewise an abundant flux within the psychological body that drives our emotional life, bringing equilibrium and orientation. We are born knowing much more than we remember today, because human experience displaces much of the innate wisdom of the body that drives the heart and lungs. Subtle traces of that knowledge emerge in dreams and parapraxes – those annoying slips of the tongue and mind that expose deeper processes than we care to admit to, yet with which we find meaning and are so made well.
It’s been said that the newborn infant has only two rudimentary emotional states, fear and pleasure, which develop over time into an increasingly complex range of feelings due to the accumulation of human experience and the growth of the central nervous system. However, there is as yet no way an infant’s private feelings and experiences – rich as they may be – can be studied by researchers. What we are born knowing remains still a mystery – yet that is what makes us well.
There is an apocryphal story making the rounds of social media about a child asking to be left alone with a newborn sibling – sometimes a boy wanting privacy with his baby sister, sometimes a girl wanting to be left with her new brother – and with concern the parents eventually allow the two to be alone together. Listening in, they overhear the child ask the infant, “Remind me about God (or heaven, or some other inscrutable) – I’m beginning to forget.”
There is a mystery around birth and death, the two events that embrace the mystery of life; a mystery that our sciences have yet to fully explain, and our religions have yet to fully comprehend. But every one of us is intimately, if vaguely, aware of that mystery – though we may forget what we knew as we were born, and choose to ignore – for now – what we will rediscover as we die. Wellness embraces that mystery as a mystery, and the willingness to live accordingly, fully and without reservation – living life well.
Jim Shere is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Glen Ellen. He is also a writer and poet, and the executive director of the Glen Ellen Historical Society. You are invited to explore his website at jimshere.com.