Everyday I have at least one moment when I am inspired by the aliveness around me, the creativity and love that gives life beauty and hope. Everyday I also see so many of my family and friends struggling, and I hesitate to pick up the newspaper because there are so many headlines about complex, dangerous problems.
Living between hope and joy and fear is sometimes crazy making! How do I hold these two feelings at the same time?
Luckily, there is a word that can do it: Opa!*
From the outside, shouting “Opa!” might seem like a cliché of Greek dancing. I certainly had to get over my reticence and gradually learned that calling out “Opa!” when dancing is a central part of expressing joy and encouraging each other on.
The word “Opa!” can be found in both the Iliad and Odyssey. Homer’s muse in writing these books was Kalliope. In their book The OPA! Way, authors Alex Pattakos and Elaine Dundon cite Sophia Tsakiroglous Bothou as explaining that that “the chanting or calling out to Kalliope was shortened to “Ope!” and eventually that morphed into “Opa!” In time, the word began to describe the high tone or a vocalist who, through his or her “Opa!” was able to create an uplifting and enthusiastic spirit.
I also had a friend who would exclaim “Opa!” whenever my then-toddler daughter fell down. Pattakos and Dundon and recount their good friend Andreas, the owner of a restaurant in Rethymno, Crete, interprets the word to also mean “wake up,” “danger,” and “look out.”
It turns out that Opa can be spelled in two different ways and the different spellings relate to the different meanings of the word. In the Greek alphabet there are two different letters for the single English letter “O”. As Pattakos and Dundon explain:
“Spelled with an omicron, Opa! means voice, as we describe with our story of Kalliope, along with excitement and spirit. However, when spelled with an omega, Opa!, which is derived from various ancient Greek words describing the opening of our eyes, means “danger” or “watch out.” So Andreas was very insightful when he told us that “Opa!” can express excitement but also “wake up!” or “look out!””
Because I learned the word “Opa!” in the context of dancing, I have a body memory of being in constant movement when shouting it – whether to celebrate a particularly passionate musical improvisation or to caution people about the puddle of a spilled drink that the dancers should avoid.
Sometimes in response to either awe or danger I can be tempted to freeze. Dancing has taught me the feeling of what it is to keep going through the waves of excitement and challenges. We just keep dancing through it. This is what resilience feels like. This is how I want to live through this time of transition: awake, alert both to possible to danger and to the manifestation of spirit.
*This post was inspired by Noel Quiñones presentation at the Intercultural Leadership Institute about how Puerto Ricans similarly use the expression ¡Wepa! to both acknowledge mistakes and celebrate.