I attended a forum recently where the topic of discussion centered on the notion of happiness, and the elements that contribute to that state of mind. As someone who thinks of himself as a “happy” person (however one might choose to define that term), I’m always interested in learning more about where that attitude comes from and what makes some of us more that way than others. Discussions about the topic are always interesting because it’s a subject that virtually everyone has feelings about, and our perspectives about our happiness are so diverse. Nonetheless, the makeup of this group proved to be without great diversity: caucasian, middle-to-upper class, college-educated, and I can’t say that anyone presented a startling new view. But I did come away with an affirmed belief about happiness and the poor.
At some point in the discussion, as they inevitably do, the topics of wealth and income inequality were broached. “Money does not assure happiness,” someone observed, and I thought of Santa Maria de Wasaka in Nicaragua where there are few financial resources of any sort. “But a base level of income to meet essential needs is a given for that statement,” our facilitator amended, and I called to mind the women of Genesis cooperative who worked on their dreams every day, and often without compensation. “CEOs make way too much money,” a woman observed, and I thought about the earnings threshold of $2 a day for many Nicaraguans. “The wealthy are unfairly vilified today, and they do a lot of good works,” responded another, and I contemplated what a billion dollars might look like. “Poor people are still happy, though, because they have learned to be content with what they have,” commented one. “They lead happy lives,” and I couldn’t help but wonder what my Nicaraguan acquaintances might have said in response to such a claim.
It was an interesting discussion, to be sure. But for those of us in the group, the nature of the debate was largely academic; there were no poor people sitting around our table to talk about their happiness. It’s easy to make sweeping statements about our relative happiness- and the presumed happiness of people living a planet away- when we’ve just come from breakfast (really more than we should eat) in the latest Nike shoes. The fact is that there were certain voices missing from the conversation and I felt great unease, unhappiness, in not being able to adequately represent those who were missing.
Measures of happiness, including statistics about health, education, longevity, social mobility and literacy, among others, are relatively easy to quantify. We can get our arms around such statistics and critique their meaning as well well as their shortcomings, and whether they truly provide us with a clear representation of people’s happiness. We can even soften the vaguely uneasy feeling that many in the world are not nearly as happy as we are. We can rationalize the stats and make them suit our own biases and opinions. But a voice for the poor would have brought a new dimension to our understanding. Getting our arms around that person, that reality, would have proven far more difficult than merely speculating about happiness. Staring truth in the face often has that impact on us.
A more complete understanding of happiness, in our own lives and the lives of others, derives from being able to know truths other than our own. We are not required to become poor to know poverty, but we do have to confront it face-to-face. We are not required to become despairing in order to know unhappiness, but we have to get close enough to feel the oppressive weight of need in order to assess our own posture. If we are not personally possessed of this experiential understanding in ourselves, then we need the voice of one who has lived in such shadows to help us illuminate our own journey of understanding. Or at least a voice to remind us that there is a wide range in this scale of happiness, and many are quite far distant from where we find ourselves.
In the roundtable, I spoke of Nicaragua. I talked of the poor I have met. I contrasted their realities with those experienced by the rest of us. But it was a weak voice that spoke and I need to learn how to do better. In their absence, the poor deserve it. Those who have not experienced it personally deserve it, as a testimony to truth. We owe it to ourselves if we seek to know reality and understand something like happiness.
Being a voice for the poor. It’s the highest calling, the highest honor, I can imagine….