My son had the privilege of going to a college in which he studied the classics, and in so doing had to learn Greek. I envy that, but not enough to study it myself. I am too old, I think; perhaps not really, but as I look toward the end of my life and time seems thinner there seems to be a narrowing of choices. In any case, he is not around right now for me to ask about this, but I have come across the kind of little linguistic gem that thrills me, and that is that the root of the word “enthusiasm” is the Greek enthousiasmos, which means “the God within.” An enthusiast, one can say, is one inhabited by God.
And also, I am told, the ancient Greeks called those who created works of art “enthusiasts,” which makes perfect sense to me, as my own working definition of art is that which inspires (or deepens the breath), and in that sense brings God forth. In the very rare instance in which I am grandiose enough to think that I have created art, either in writing or photography, or landing an airplane, I believe that somehow something spiritual has moved through me, and when engaging the art of another I believe that something spiritual moved through them and I was fortunate to catch a wisp of it.
There are many things in this life that I approach with enthusiasm, although I prefer to think, in line with the word’s origins, that these things approach me, or pass through me having emanated from some sort of spiritual place. I recall one of my trips to Ireland in which I attended a copious amount of fleadhs— music festivals that were taking place all throughout the western part of the country. From time to time, a single woman would come onto the often makeshift stage, sit upright in a chair, close her eyes, still her body, and begin to sing a capella. Once, one of these women explained to the audience that this was the Irish way of singing, and it was based on the idea that the music did not emanate from within oneself, but instead it emanated from some spiritual other place and that the singer was merely the vessel. Perhaps this is at the core of all art, a kind of enthusiasm that doesn’t necessarily reveal itself in an effervescent moment of glee, but rather a lachrymose, mournful offering, a moment in which the “thou within” expresses itself.
In depression, the God within us goes on vacation. Enthusiasm disappears. The external world fails to spark anything within, because in a state of depression the pilot light that might spark enthusiasm is all but extinguished. One knows the demons of depression are departing when enthusiasm returns. It may be a simple feeling that a cup of tea might hit the spot right now, or a renewed interest in seeing, hearing, or making art. In that sense, the level of one’s own enthusiasm becomes an indicator of one’s general well-being, a touchstone of sorts letting us know the degree to which we are engaged in living this one precious life.
These days I find myself enthusiastic about a lot of things I do, but often the enthusiasm doesn’t show up until I find myself in the midst of it. I get a thrill when I get in the cockpit, a familiar place, and eagerly go through the steps needed to light up the engine, spin the propeller, and roll down the runway. I get a spark of enthusiasm when I am sitting with a client, somehow manage to connect to their pain, and join them in a way that sparks their enthusiasm. Then there is a moment of healing, and there is deep satisfaction in having that shared experience. I get a thrill now when I look at great visual art, or hear a great song, although frankly, those are few and far between. The old songs, sadly, don’t do so much for me anymore, unless perhaps it is Lightfoot or Janis Ian at their heights.
I got into a little tiff with a colleague a while back, who wanted to define the work we do on a website as “the science of behavior.”’ I objected to the word science in this context, because, while arguably accurate, I thought the use of the word on a website in a marketing context was misleading. It was as if calling something a science rather than an art made it more legitimate. If we understand art, though, the way the ancient Greeks did, and called artists “enthusiasts,” then to me it is both a compliment and an honor to be known as someone who practices the “art of behavior analysis.”
To practice behavior analysis, fly an airplane, engage a book, poem or story with enthusiasm– to do anything with enthusiasm, elevates ourselves to more spiritual beings. It signifies to me that we are bringing passion and gusto to our work, and so long as that passion doesn’t blind us to the world at large, that can only be a good thing.