Indeed, we wonder at how people in poor communities can be genuinely happy amidst poverty. Like this boy. I was framing a scene with no particular human subject in my mind when from nowhere he got into the lens and gave the camera a rather very charming and quite the professional pose. He was waiting for me to click on the button, so I did. And he became the central figure around which the implications of particular elements of a poor fishing village life have meaning: is there reason to be happy in poverty?
Whenever residents in poor communities tell me, during interviews with them, that they’re generally happy after having just given me their life stories mostly riddled with being overpowered by those well placed in the economic, social, and political ladder, I always have to take a deep breath in order to keep myself from ranting at them: but why? how can you say that? you’ve been trampled on almost all your lives, how can you be calm about it at all? how can you not be angry?
One of the phrases around the office that has gotten stuck in my mind is, “maybe there’s some wisdom to it”, a favorite utterance from a colleague when faced with strong opposing views from others. When faced with different views myself, I try to see the wisdom in those. Though I haven’t yet found the wisdom in the calm of poor communities in the face of systemic poverty and their happiness despite it, I gradually understood, through my visits and observations, their point of view.
One observation has something to do with the physical environment in these villages, especially the ones in the countryside (who make up the bulk of the country’s total poor). Notwithstanding the typhoons that are constantly changing the landscapes, these villages are set in perpetual idyll: sunny skies, beautiful beaches, lush woods, relatively raw gardens of Eden. Happiness filled me whenever I was in these villages but sadness as well, seeing
their comparably materially-deprived lifestyle. In these communities, life takes on the fluidity of the seasons and constantly-changing moods of the sky and sea. A typhoon comes and prevents the men from making a good haul out of the sea, destroys a few boats, perhaps takes a few human lives – these are seen as natural consequences of that cycle. Human life is transient. There is always next season. Move on. This perspective of life, formed underneath sunny skies, is not as depressing as the same thought, made alone, inside four walls of concrete in a city where dog eats dog.
Another observation is communities’ limited exposure to external influences which is a result of their geographical and economic and social isolation.
Many a night in these homes I was the last to sleep. My hosts slept like babies and this despite their half-empty stomachs and no fans. My body is clocked-in to shut down around midnight so I had all the hours between seven and midnight absolutely free. There was no light to read by because electricity hasn’t reached their villages or if it has families can’t pay to be connected. I conserved batteries in my torch for real emergencies and I used my laptop only for very important work and communication. I haven’t paid attention to Night in my whole life as during those times. In a way, I became my hosts’ unnecessary sentinel. I worried about there being no locks, the mosquitoes, and such. At some point I’d get thirsty but I don’t take a single sip because it meant I’d have need of the toilet afterward and the toilet was either a hut or just a hole a good way outside the house, unlighted. I’m not afraid of the darkness, when push comes to shove, but my imagination had me arrested with horrific images of snakes and what if I got bitten while relieving myself? I won’t even be able to croak for help. I’d die on the spot and what a place to die in. But, snakes or none, I won’t be caught using the chamber pot which some households provided me. I just couldn’t bring myself to use it. Training dragons is nothing to my training of my kidneys and bladder during field work. I’m not a morning person but in those parts mornings are a relief. They could be awkward too, as when I knew my hosts didn’t have anything to put on the breakfast table. Nonetheless, with what these folks have and can offer as hosts they’re in general far more polite and kinder than most people who have houses with a hundred rooms. This openness and lack of pretensions are termed as ‘naivety’ and ‘lack of sophistication’ but relative to those at higher rungs of the economic and social ladder, these folks have nothing to lose except their so-called naivety. Their being hosts (to me) had nothing to do with lack of electricity or locks, or the state of their material wealth, but it was about purity of intent, being present to the other, and making real human connection.
This is the wellspring of their happiness, the kind that, according to the Bible, the world doesn’t understand, because it ensues from the spirit. Economic wealth or social and physical well-being does not necessarily go hand in hand with spiritual fullness. Just look at the zen masters in Buddhism. The martyrs in the Catholic Church who died happy despite the burning of their flesh and decapitation of their body parts. People who have reached the peak of material wealth and taken their fill of it found it necessary to downgrade their lifestyle in order to get in some genuine happiness into their personal life.
Personally, in order to be happy, I learned that I have to let go of certain things (ideas, ideals, etc). It became easier with age so I don’t know if it’s a natural process, but I learned to choose my battles. But there are certain things one doesn’t let go of, like freedom. Situations that tries one’s freedom makes one unhappy, certainly, but this doesn’t mean one will give up and walk away, rather one will work at finding ways. It’s hard work and could take years to realize the objective, which doesn’t make one happy in terms of the popular meaning of the word. Also, working for freedom necessitates a store of resources. The poorest of the poor don’t have such a store, much less marketable capacities and critical linkages for them to get hold of necessary resources. Knowing this, and constrained by it, their energies are trained toward surviving the present, I’d like to think, just temporarily.
Fascinating stuff this happiness. The UN has resolved that it be an objective of public policies. Policy making to eradicate poverty in the context of genuine happiness is not about providing the poor with material wealth, but rather freedom: for example, freedom to decide where to live, whether on a beachfront, a gated village, in the hinterlands, on a farm, or on the top floor of a condominium. Poor people don’t have that freedom. They live in marginalized lands because that is their only choice. That is their only choice because society keeps them “where they belong”. How can we expect the poor to be exposed to and know, hence, desire, the finer things in life when we shut the doors of libraries, museums, bookstores, etc. to them because these places are deemed not for filthy and filthy-looking people? Why don’t libraries, museums, bookstores work out a program of literacy for the poor instead? To encourage participation of the private sector, why don’t government look into creating a system of incentives to encourage local programs that aim to level up lives of the poor?
The way to look at poor people or poverty is optimistically, in that once the poor latch on to the economic ladder they become a massive economic force, hence it is also in the best interest of capitalists to get them on that ladder as quickly as possible. If I’m to propose a new indicator for HDI, it is this: the change in society’s usual views and regard of poor people. Eradication of systemic poverty starts with this change.