Why Every (Happy) Person Needs a Greek Mom
Photo: Courtesy of Agapi Stassinopoulos
Actress and author of the Wake Up to the Joy of You: 52 Meditations and Practices for a Calmer, Happier Life Agapi Stassinopoulos and her sister Arianna Huffington were raised by their influential, courageous mother, Elli Stassinopoulous in Athens. Despite marital troubles and limited financial circumstances, Stassinopoulos taught both her daughters to always have an open heart and "an unshakable trust in life." Today, Agapi explains what we all can learn from Greek mothers about life, love and "being your giant self."
1. Goddesses never rush.
As women, we're powerful, my mother always told me. We're Aphrodite. We're Athena. We're Artemis. We're Hera. We're the goddesses of the beauty and wisdom, the goddesses of the hunt and the moon, and the goddess of marriage and childbirth. We're not the goddesses of the cell phone or the microwave.
A few years ago, my mother and I were looking for an apartment in New York (we used to live together). We saw one place, and my mother said, "It's very nice here. Very nice." But it was too expensive. There was no way we were going to live there. Then the housekeeper came in. The next thing you know, Mom was sitting there on the sofa with the housekeeper chatting about England and a recipe for yogurt. I said, "It's 12:30. We have to go. The next apartment!" And she said, "Darling, don't rush me. This is a moment. I don't miss the moment. Not for real estate."
2. Give it your full attention.
When I was young and I couldn't do something like get dance steps right or remember my lines in a play, my mother would say, "Oh, darling, give your full attention. If you're not succeeding, you haven't given it your full attention yet."
When I was 14, right after my father left us, I said, "Mom, I want to go to drama school and become an actress." My mother, my sister and I were living in the middle of Athens in a one-bedroom apartment, and a girlfriend at school had told me about The Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. I engraved the initials on my little desk as a reminder—RADA. Every time I looked at this engraving, it reminded me of the goal.
Knowing how badly I wanted to go to drama school, despite our home situation, my mother said, enthusiastically, "Okay, you will! You will go to drama school!" She then gave my dream her full attention. She said, "Let's find you the teacher who can get you there! Let's find someone who graduated from RADA."
So she asked everyone she knew, "Do you know anybody who finished RADA?" And finally somebody did—a Greek actor named Fesos Thesos.
So we all went to see Fesos Thesos in the biggest Athens theater. And we went backstage to meet Fesos, and my mother said, "Hello, I'm Ellie, and this is my daughter Agapi, and she wants to go to RADA." Thesos then connected me with his own teacher, and, ultimately, I was accepted at RADA and went to England—even with Greek (not English) as my first language.
3. Change the channel.
We all feel hopeless sometimes, especially when we're not getting the things we most want—whether that's in our love life or in our careers. But my mother used to say to me: "Change the channel! You've been on the Disappointment Channel for too long. And before that, it was the Blame Yourself Channel! Switch to the I Love Myself Channel or the Golf Channel or Any Channel at All." What she meant was redirect your thoughts. Focus on what you want to see happen, not on what is discouraging—and blocking—from happening.
4. Invite everybody to the picnic.
My mother was an incredibly open person who did not see people in a hierarchical way. She had no problem having a dinner and seating the plumber next to the prime minister. She also loved how food brought people together. Eating dissolves the separation between strangers. That's the Greek way, and that was our family way also—to feed people, to show love and attention through dishes like spanakopita. At the table, my mother mended old wounds and made new friends. She reminded us that excluding anyone is simply denying yourself an opportunity to grow—and live.
5. Be your giant self.
My mother didn't give into her fears. When she was in the Second World War working as a nurse for the Red Cross, the Germans burst into the cabin where they were hiding Jewish people and caring for the wounded. The soldiers started to shoot. Without hesitating, my mother stood up and in perfect German said, "Put the machine guns down! We are the Red Cross!" The Germans followed her command and immediately put their weapons down. She would refer to that moment as finding her "giant self." No matter who you are, you have a giant self, you can get the machine guns to drop! The spirit is a mighty thing. And my mother tapped into that all her life. Whenever she was shaken by my father, for example, who really betrayed her by having affairs (ultimately, she stood up to him and left him), she would think back on that moment in the cabin and say, "I'm the woman who made that happen." We all have a moment like that this, maybe not one with Nazis and bullets, but one where our bigger self steps forward to act with courage and total belief.
6. You are your own capital.
We had a family friend from the northern city of Thessaloniki. He was very successful and wealthy. One time he came to visit us and he had put on weight; he seemed run down. He was out of breath just climbing the stairs of our apartment. My mother took one look at him and said, ‘I don't care how your business is doing—you're not taking care of you! You're smoking, you're eating fatty food, and you're not getting rest! You are your only capital. There are only so many withdrawals you can make from your bank account. You'll go bankrupt if you don't make some deposits soon!" Then she took him to the hospital and, it turns out, he had a clogged artery.
All of my life, I've remembered this phrase, when I'm pulled into too many directions. We all need to stop and invest in our own health—and selves.
7. Sing your worry away.
When I moved to New York to live on my own, it was a very challenging, lonely time. I was writing my first book and I missed my family. My mother would call me and sing different Greek songs about love and life and the sea. She would even leave them on my answering machine. Now, if I'm worried or upset, I'll do this myself. I don't care where I am. I sing to calm myself down, to release the stress.
8. You are here for the joy.
My mother passed away 12 years ago. I was right beside her, holding her hand. Today, I can still hear her talking to me. I hear what she wrote me in letters while I was in school—worried and alone—when she told me, "Darling if you're unhappy, remember, you are here to bring your joy. You're not here for the worry. You are not here to be good at math"—because I was terrible at math. "This is not the point of why you are here on the planet. You are here for the joy!" Which is the same reason we're all here.
Agapi Stassinopoulos is the author of new book Wake Up to the Joy of You: 52 Meditations and Practices for a Calmer, Happier Life, and Unbinding the Heart: A Dose of Greek Wisdom, Generosity, and Unconditional Love.
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