A couple Saturdays a month, I try and spend some time with a dear friend of my family’s named Maria. She owns a small Greek bakery on Central Avenue in Union City called Liberty Brand Pastries and Foods, where all the “big fat Greek” families near and far come for their koulourakia (butter cookies), baklava and holiday specialty foods. My Dad and I used to visit her for Kalamata olives and conversation in his native language; now I’m the one picking up olives, feta cheese, and those butter cookies I loved as a kid. Mix in a visit from the neighborhood mailwoman, a random diner owner, and even a priest from the local Greek church, and conversation and Papagalos Loumidis coffee abounds.
One particular Saturday, Maria and I spoke about many things, and we eventually landed on the subjects of my book and my new gig with Indiegogo. Maria’s fascination by my ability to tell her the weather for tomorrow just by looking at my phone today paled away when I explained to her what I spend my days doing from around 9:30AM to 5:30PM. I told her about my travels over the past five months and how many people and celebrities I’ve met in my short time with Indiegogo, and how I help them make their moviemaking dreams come true by helping them get the funding they need to make films they’ll be proud to show the world.
Maria then looked me in the eye with a certain sense of pride. “Yanni,” she said, saying my name in Greek, “you are a true filotimo.”
Having never heard this particular word before, I asked Maria what it meant. She told me it meant that I was a “friend of honor and integrity,” but then went on to say that filotimo is the most difficult word to translate from Greek into any language, and it’s an even harder concept to fully wrap one’s mind around. When I got home that afternoon, I did a little research. According to Christopher Xenopolous Janus, filotimo is “the most untranslatable and unique Greek virtue.” Composed from two words, filo- (friend) and -timos (honor/respect), filotimo is “a value of personal honor and pride that pivots on empathy and compassion for others as expressed through acts of generosity and sacrifice,” according to an informative blog post on Kafeneio.
Now, being that I’m more American than Greek, I grew up without any knowledge of the concept of filotimo, but it seems its seeds had been planted by my father ever since I was a boy. My Dad certainly embodied the essence of filotimo; he sacrificed so much for my sake, raising me right after my mother died; he stood tall and strong even in the face of the unseen adversary that took his voice and ultimately his life, but not without a near ten-year battle because he felt he still had to look after me. Much like every other story out there, and of course according to Joseph Campbell, we all must “atone with the father” and ultimately succeed him, as is the case with me. And so in that supersession, perhaps I’ve absorbed a subtle fraction of the filotimo he preached and practiced without him ever having to label it or give it a name.
Greeks, in general, have a strong sense of pride and are often accused of being selfish and having a formidable ego to contend with. But within all men and women who walk through life with open minds emerge two most important elements of storytelling and life: compassion and empathy, which each have their roots firmly planted in the ancient soil of the Hellenic world. With age comes growth and understanding. But to get there, we must first work on ourselves; we must be selfish (for a time, not forever) and start working on, as Michael Jackson once sang, “the man in the mirror.” In order to craft an award-winning screenplay, one must lock himself away with only a laptop, like Herman Melville had done with the writing of Moby Dick. And once the story is written, once the film premieres, we suddenly become the most selfless people in the world by having touched all those others around us in profound ways. Inducing tears, bellying up a laugh, moving a passive bystander to act. And once that happens –– or rather once we allow it to happen –– our individuality softly melts away, as it must, before we are allowed to become something truly great and selfless: a filotimo.
Therefore, filotimo is not merely a word, but a way of life; a feeling, not a philosophy. It’s something that grows alongside and within each and every one of us, not something we learn like mathematics or language. And while I’m still working on nurturing myself in mind, body and spirit, tapping out words on the page, I’m also giving back with each poem I publish, each Indiegogo campaign I help make successful, and with this very blog post you’re reading now. Filotimo resides in other people’s perception of you, like Maria and her perception of me. Its roots, though, come from years of growth and prosperity of the self, then sacrificing that self to the greater good by simply bringing out the greater good from within ourselves.
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Filotimo. Machisimo. Mensch. These are all cultural concepts sometimes difficult to grasp. Are there any others that you know of? Share them below –– I’d love to know them and what they mean to you.