Weird Words and Why They Matter: Ataraxia

Weird Words and Why They Matter: Ataraxia

My husband collapsed into bed early, sleeping in the evening for the first time after two months of night shifts. Too exhausted to shower after his twelve-hour shift, he reeked of Sulphur and other refinery gasses I don’t care to contemplate. Within seconds his snores pushed against the walls as though trying to burst into the night.

I snuggled next to him anyway. Lying there, wrapped in his stinky arms and sung to sleep by his rattling rib cage, I knew there was nowhere I’d rather be. I’d nearly forgotten the feel of his heartbeat beneath my cheek, his breath in my hair, his heavy arm over my shoulder. In that moment, my contentious work meetings, mountain of paperwork, and ever-growing to-do list melted into the warmth of his embrace. This was a slice of ataraxia.

The Word

greek statue Ataraxia first caught my eye due to its phonetic resemblance to a motor speech disorder, apraxia, and a muscular coordination disorder, ataxia. Its meaning, however, could not be more different. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines ataraxia as “calmness untroubled by mental or emotional disquiet [1].” It hails from the third century B.C. from the Greek a- “not, without,” and tarassein “to disturb, confuse [2].” Greek philosophers in the schools of Pyrrhonism, Epicureanism, and Stoicism believed ataraxia was part of a larger nirvana-like inner-peace known as Eudaimonia [3].

Why it Matters

mindful meditation

The modern trend toward mindfulness is proof history repeats itself. While not identical, both mindfulness and ataraxia speak to a human desire for calmness in the world’s chaos. The early philosophers believed it took years of practiced meditation to achieve ataraxia, but I wonder if it could be simply a collection of priceless times we take for granted. I often rob myself of ataraxia.

Usually I will say to my husband, “You reek. Take a shower.” I pop in earplugs to block his snores and scoot to the edge of the bed. It took two months of sleeping alone and one weird word that sounds like a speech disorder for me to realize how often I sabotaged those small moments of tranquility. That’s why this word matters. It taught me to appreciate the little joys and ignore the petty irritants.

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Works Cited

“Ataraxia.” Philosophy Terms (blog), October 7, 2016.

“Ataraxia | Origin and Meaning of Ataraxia by Online Etymology Dictionary.” Accessed November 28, 2018.

“Medical Definition of ATARAXIA.” Accessed November 28, 2018.

“World Wide Words: Ataraxy.” World Wide Words. Accessed November 28, 2018.

[1] “Medical Definition of ATARAXIA.”

[2] “Ataraxia | Origin and Meaning of Ataraxia by Online Etymology Dictionary.”

[3] “World Wide Words”; “Ataraxia.”

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