In his short but powerful book, Not The Way It’s Supposed to Be, Cornelius Plantinga gives one of the best definitions of shalom that I have come across: full health in all areas. This definition lead me to this idea:
The wise person is the embodiment of complete health and well-being in all areas of life
Aristotle says that only the virtuous person can be truly happy (that is, have complete well-being).
The opposite is, therefore, also true: The life of the unwise person (no matter how prosperous, successful or powerful he/she may seem) is ultimately an unhealthy one (see my post, A Tale of Two Stories, for more on this).
Shalom, then, is freedom from certain things in order to move towards freedom for other things.
When I think about what this means in practical terms, the question I ask is: what does it mean to have complete health and well-being in one’s life? I borrow the ancient Greek’s framework for body, mind, and soul to suggest what health and well-being look like in the complete person:
Healthy minds are characterized by the freedom from distress, psychoses, and neuroses brought about by unhealthy/unwise living (addictions, self-gratification, self-indulgence, pornography, disingenuousness, dishonesty to others and self, ego-centric behaviors, etc.). In other words, a healthy mind is free from guilt, shame, and worry to instead possess the freedom for concentrating on the common good, the value of the other, and the dignity of all. A healthy mind is one that is not possessed by prejudices, bigotry, hatred, animosity, narrow-mindedness, or shallow thinking, but instead, is able to see others as ends in themselves (rather than as means to an end) and values the worth and common humanity of the “other” as one values one’s self. It is identified by well-being in such things as feelings of security, healthy attachments, belonging and esteem, and creative expression. Healthy minds pursue wisdom over information, and ask such questions as “What does it mean to live a meaningful life and do meaningful work?”
Healthy bodies are characterized by the freedom from unhealthy habits (eating, addictions), abuse (domestic, physical, sexual, verbal, self-induced, bullying, trafficking, etc.), oppression and repression (the lack of fully granted human rights connected to such things as hunger, poverty, homelessness, access to adequate medical care, etc.), and the valuing of one’s person as such (related to gender, race, ethnicity, socio-economic class, children’s rights, etc.). Healthy bodies are shaped by the opportunity for complete well-being both in basic needs (food, water, clothing, shelter, etc.) and in higher physiological needs (feeling safe in one’s own skin; feeling pride in one’s gender, ethnicity, community; growing up in a healthy family environment).
Given that it is now believed that up to 90% of all disease is related to stress (constant headaches, heart attacks, arthritis, high blood pressure, diabetes, skin conditions, and depression, just to name a few), we find that the health of the body is tied intricately to the health of the mind. Healthy bodies reflect wise and virtuous living. (This is not to say that someone who suffers physiologically in some way is necessarily unwise, for there are many good, wise, and morally virtuous people who experience disease in all of its forms; what I am arguing is that the wise person intentionally lives out an ethic that seeks freedom from certain things to be able to have the freedom for other things).
Healthy “souls” should “grow” over time. I believe this happens through living transcendently (thinking about others and the common good over one’s own self-centered gain). Healthy souls are large, generous, and inclusive. Healthy souls pursue virtue, justice, and active kindness within a framework of moral courage. Healthy souls are marked by their sacrificial nature, their care and compassion for those in need, and their willingness to engage in issues concerning the vulnerable, the marginalized and the voiceless. Conversely, unhealthy souls are consumed by their own consumption, something we see over and over in literature (Willy Loman, Gregor Samsa, Othello, and Gollum, e.g.) and in life (Tiger Woods, John Edwards, Bernie Madoff, e.g.).
This, then, is a vision of what a life should look like in its most complete form. It is a freedom from poverty of all types and is freedom for full growth and flourishing. It is to be free from the overwhelming rule of our base urges, free from the ruin of our desires, and free to be at-one-with one’s self. It is the freedom to be at peace, to experience beauty, to love one’s neighbor, and to seek reconciliation and transformation in all things.
It is a life rooted in the pursuit of wisdom, virtue and transcendence. It is defined by reckless generosity, humble identity, and the deeper magic of sacrificial living.
It is to fully experience the human condition as it should be.