Monday, January 29, 2018

Happiness: Epicurus

Before tomorrow's session of Philosophy Club, I want to take a quick second and write about last week's. I introduced our first philosopher for Happiness, Epicurus.

Epicurus was born in 341 B.C.E. but students (and adults) can still easily relate to his teachings!

The day before this lesson I read my class The Table Where Rich People Sit for our Virtue of the Week, Forgiveness. Byrd Baylor and Peter Parnell make a powerful combination and I knew that some of their books would also be a beautiful tie-in for Happiness, especially the idea of Simplicity which our two philosophers (Epicurus and Charlotte Joko Beck) both speak about.

    By the way, I find it interesting that this book, which is about the difference between poverty and deliberately choosing a simple life in line with one's values, is placed by the folks at Amazon into the "Growing Up & Facts of Life" category.

I looked on my shelf for other books by the Baylor/Parnell team and decided on I'm in Charge of Celebrations.

I began our Philosophy session by reading the group this book. Then I asked the students to get out their Philosophy journals and told them to, without talking to one another, "list some simple things that you celebrate, some simple things that you stop and notice that you think no one else does."

After some time to write, I asked for volunteers to share. One teenage boy shared this sweet reflection: "Cats. When times are really bad you have a cat... It's awesome... It's just nice to have cats around because they sleep on your lap for a very long time and then they play with your feet."

One of the nice things about the rules in Philosophy is that no one is allowed to interrupt you (even the teacher) and you get to decide when you're done talking and you get to call on the next person, choosing between the people who have their hand up (even the teacher). In Philosophy, it can take a while to get out what you have to say, and it's really important that you be given enough time.

Another response which tickled me -- and which I bet teachers in the public school rarely hear -- was "I feel school is a time to celebrate learning and freedom."

One little girl talked about her birthday and explained to us, "My birthday is a big part of my family." She shared memory after memory of how her family made her feel special.

I shared that I have three family members living who are in their 90's. Often I forget (I'm ashamed to say this but was honest with my students about it) about my great-uncle Ed (born in 1919, he just turned 99), my Grammy (born in 1920, she just turned 98), and my Granddaddy (born in 1922, he is 95 and will turn 96 in July). Because one of my daughters had to do a report on the Jazz Age in general and Charles Lindbergh in particular, we suddenly began to talk about all of the people who we knew... who we could call... and ask about the 1920's. People who remembered Lindbergh's flight and the Charleston and when pole sitting was a fad. It was a celebration of our family! All we talked about and all we thought about was how lucky we were to be able to talk to all of these people who were there. We were so excited to call them. My Granddaddy even remembered the precise name of the kidnapper of Charles Lindbergh's baby! My uncle Ed talked about being at a dance hall with the Tommy Dorsey Band at one end of the hall and the Glenn Miller Band (still unknown) at the other. Can you imagine such a thing?!

It was nice to stop and really appreciate something that I tend to take for granted, which is the longevity of the folks in my family.

Marietta McCarty talks in her book about how important it is that you share, from your life, from your heart, things which are authentic. These are often the things your class will remember more than anything else that happens in the lesson. It is as if they are learning you more than they are learning anything else. And when you are fully present that means a great deal to the children. Rudolf Steiner talks about this too in many places in his work.

Next we turned to a fresh page in our Philosophy journals and made a T-chart, with one side for Needs and the other side for Wants. I asked students to think about items in their house one at a time, and decide which category to put each thing in. If thinking about the whole house is overwhelming, I asked them to just think about the items in their bedroom. They could draw or write the items.

This activity provoked a rich discussion, probably the first one of the year in which every student participated. Many children spoke multiple times as they talked their way through their ideas on this subject. While they were writing their lists, I read to them some of Marietta McCarty's background information on Epicurus (bits and pieces from pages 63 to 65).

I focused on several of his key points:

  • Spiritual repose and contentment come from the satisfaction of basic needs.
  • Extravagence is unnecessary.
  • Acquisition of possessions is not the path to happiness.
  • Mental fear is the worst pain and a result of the victory of complication over simplicity.
  • Determining what is unnecessary in our lives and clearing it out soothes us mentally.

I asked the children for their comments. They could choose to share what they wrote on their lists and where they put each item. Or, more generally, they could comment on Epicurus's main ideas that happiness comes from only having your basic needs met with absolutely nothing extra, that the more stuff you have the more it weighs on your mind and your heart, and that getting rid of those extra things lifts you up.

One little boy was completely honest that he put everything in his house in the Needs list and that it was hard for him to be able to see the difference. "What he says is a little strange in a way. How are the kids going to have fun? It'll take all day for the kids to build the toys they want to play with."

When I asked him if he had to spend all of his recess in my yard building the toys he wanted to play with, he paused. It was hard for him to reconcile the two facts, that he could play pefectly happily in my yard for an hour with no "stuff," but that he didn't want to put any of his toys at home into that Extras group, a category where Epicurus might take them away! Then all of a sudden, he declared that almost everything he had was a want and not a need.

Note: This is where I make sure that kids know that I am NOT telling them to go home and get rid of everything they own. We are just thinking about Epicurus's idea and exploring it, seeing if we agree with it and if we do not.

Some children had no problem. One of the oldest boys stated, "Fun is a want, not a need.... This person is talking about total simplicity."

The children got into a short debate about whether electricity was a want or a need.

One little girl bravely shared her Wants List with the class: pets, a unicorn, and a sleepover.

Another object of debate: furniture. "You can live without it, but it makes your house feel more like a home," one child declared.

It was interesting to see how they had a temporary hesitation about Epicurus and then a complete and whole-hearted acceptance of his ideas. I was curious if anyone thought Epicurus was taking it too far. So I asked Becca to share about Monk Day. See last year's blog posts from our Middle Ages block:

I asked her about the life of a monk as an example of someone who tried to go completely without extravagances and only focus on the bare essentials. We even discussed saints like Simeon the Stylite. I shared another personal story, when I read a biography of Florence Nightingale as a child and learned that she used to sleep on her floor instead of on the bed and so I tried it... but my bedroom floor was bare concrete and it was really cold. I got up halfway through the night and got back in my bed. When I told my mother the next morning, she told me that you can get really sick from sleeping on a concrete floor! So it was good that I got back into bed.

To my surprise, because I thought Becca would say that her experience living the daily schedule of a Benedictine monk was too difficult, her take on it was that "it was not simple... it had a whole schedule." She described her day as a monk in detail. But ultimately she said that "they didn't take it far enough." From there, several children shared their experiences with fasting during Ramadan. That was very interesting to the whole group.

We ended with one final comment from a little boy who said, "I don't think school is a need because our great-ancestors lived by surviving in the wild." Hmmm. It's fascinating the things that they debated the most in the Want vs. Need department: electricity, chapstick and lotion, and then school itself.

It was a great day!

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