Stick with me on this one. I exercise three mornings a week at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City. This is a relatively new phenomenon for me. When I began working out regularly back in February, I was a touch nervous about it. Having been very out of shape, self-conscious, overweight… all coupled with a general dislike of the whole working out “thing,” I really didn’t want to be there. My anxiety was exacerbated when an acquaintance from childhood spotted me one day and, with a look of surprise on her face, shouted across the gym, “Whoa? What are YOU doing here?”
Those misgivings fell away as I was welcomed by others who began to recognize and greet me when I arrived. Of course, there’s Peggy, my personal trainer who holds a special place in my heart, who helped me to feel comfortable from the start with her encouragement. There are Cindy and Salli who dance when they walk the track and always have smiles on their faces. There are Byron and John who tell me to “keep up the good work!” Many others, too; and, then, there’s Gus. Ah, Gus, what a terrific guy!
At age 91, Gus shows up each morning with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye, rounds the track, rides a recumbent bike and talks with absolutely everyone. He doles out high fives, hugs, kisses and loads of stories too numerous to count. I think of him as the de facto mayor of the gym. He and his wife are there every morning and, frankly, the joint wouldn’t be the same without them!
Gus immigrated to the United States from Greece many years ago. And, as such, many of the stories he shares relate back to his life in Greece, his family, Greek dishes he still prepares and the like.
One morning, in his thick Greek-English (Greeklish?) accent, he asked me if I was familiar with the Greek word, “philotimo.” I was not. He went on.
“Philotimo means with honor to friendship. I’ll never forget during World War II, there were several Jewish families in my town. We heard rumors that the Nazis were going to start rounding up these families. These people – they were our neighbors, they were our friends. We had lived side by side for years and had no intention of turning them in. So, what did we do? We gave them all Greek names. Every family with a traditionally Jewish name, we gave them a traditionally Greek name. After all, they were Greeks! This is philotimo.”
I don’t know why Gus shared the story with me that morning, but I was so touched he did. He couldn’t have known that my family has its own similar story… not from Greece, but from Poland. My grandparents and a few extended relatives were taken in by a neighboring family who lived on a farm. They were hidden – for three years – in that family’s chicken coop. A local politician, under orders from the Nazis, came to the farm asking about my grandparents. Of course, the farmers said they hadn’t seen my family. The politician, still believing my grandparents to be hidden on the farm said, “Well, even if they are here, let them live. These people were my neighbors.” Philotimo.
From my perspective, philotimo does not have to be invoked only under such dramatic circumstances. In fact, it’s my impression that the sense of camaraderie and friendship my fellow gym mates and I experience each morning with our “hellos” and handshakes and high fives and hugs and words of encouragement are all part of the makings of basic philotimo. Our greetings and advocacy of one another represent the way humans come together to form community.
Let’s all do our part to exude philotimo today, throughout the holiday season and always. With honor to you, my friend.