The New York Times has a fascinating profile on Ikaria, a Greek island located about 30 miles off the western coast of Turkey. With roughly 8,000 inhabitants, the island is known for its slow and relaxed lifestyle, thriving communities, and healthy citizenry.
As Ikarian physician Dr. Ilias Leriadis says in the article: “Have you noticed that no one wears a watch here? …We simply don’t care about the clock here.”
“For people to adopt a healthful lifestyle,” reports Dan Buettner in a recent issue of the “New York Times Magazine,” “they need to live in an ecosystem, so to speak, that makes it possible.” Buettner’s exploration of the Aegean island of Ikaria, where people are 2.5 times as likely as Americans to live past the age of 90, showcases the inseparability of individual and communal flourishing.
On Ikaria, a constellation of factors yields long lives: a great diet, and few chances to deviate from it; lots of physical activity (little of which could be classed as “exercise”); even regular napping.
But the likely keys to Ikarian longevity are harder to map. Buettner suggests that social structures — the marriages, families and friendships that knit Ikarians into a densely woven fabric of village life — are what sustain these communities in healthy practices.
At a superficial level, it can be easy for us to overly romanticize such places, especially for those of us who are routinely exhausted by fast-paced Western culture (though I still prefer a widespread concern for clocks). Buettner, for example, often seems over-sold on the notion of Ikaria as Utopia–likely, no doubt, because of his research interests in longevity (understandable).
As Christians, however, we need to be careful that our ultimate aim stays fixed on the glory of God, incorporating a full scope of social and economic goods along the way. Whole-life discipleship requires more than a narrow focus on either busyness or relaxation, short life or old age, and in this vein, Case is helpful in pointing us to a deeper takeaway: “Ikaria dramatizes the fact that the virtues and flourishing of individuals depend on communal traditions and practices.”
This vigorous individual-community interaction and interdependence of Ikaria, Case argues, is something we can learn from, and further, it is something mirrored in and enhanced by the Church:
Effecting change within the Church is no different: because the gospel brooks no division of the Christian life into public and private spheres, the work of forming disciples requires change at all levels, from purging the heart of vice to recasting social structures taken captive to idolatrous greed or hatred.
The Church transforms individuals, not simply by offering moral maxims or inspirational examples, but by constituting an entire counterculture of change. For, as Ikaria’s centenarians can attest, individual virtues flourish only in the greenhouses of thriving communities.
As I’ve already indicated, such flourishing can play out in a variety of ways, resulting in a wide and diverse assortment of healthy and productive “ecosystems,” whatever the wristwatch-to-hammock ratio may be. As Case duly indicates, there is no clear public/private division that prohibits this dynamic from impacting the Church’s work at all levels across the culture.
What Ikaria demonstrates is that, whatever the result, we should continuously work to integrate personal virtue and inspiration with “communal traditions and practices.” In doing so, we can expect to see things overlap in beautiful and mysterious ways.