I am some distance away yet and it is already night, but through the dark and the smoke from the kitchen fire I can see Don Zaccarias sitting by himself. His face is half illuminated by an incandescent bulb as he reclines in one of those wire-strung chairs that seem as ubiquitous to this country as their constant need of repair. He leans forward and lifts his thermos, refills his yerba, and sits back to sip the hot maté slowly. It is the same sort of rhythm—pour, sip, sip, sigh, pour—that he has been on for about 20 minutes now. If left undisturbed he could probably keep it up for another few hours or more, or at least until the thermos runs dry (Opa la ŷ as they say in Guarani).
It’s about half past seven and this is the hour I usually share with Don Zaccarias, my trusty 80-year old friend, either in conversation or silence or comfortable intervals of both while we drink tea from his warped and weathered wooden guampa. It has become our sort of nightly ritual and I make a point of being there every evening to keep him company (although I am sure it does much more for my sanity and solitude than his). Tonight I am late, not an unusual thing in a country that typically rounds hours up and sometimes skips entire days altogether, and it has afforded me this brief moment of perspective: what would normally appear lonely, the figure of a solitary old man staring off into the night, is instead a lesson in happiness. He is as peaceful as a Buddhist monk but with tanned leather skin and sinewy muscles in the place of a crimson robe and white prayer sash. Pour sip sip sigh pour--the quiet mantra of the Southern Cone.
My time here in Paraguay as a Peace Corps volunteer has had its fair share of ups and downs. I can’t lie, in this place I have been both infinitely happier and infinitely sadder than I have ever felt in my entire life, sometimes within the same day. That’s a truth of volunteer service that they don’t tell you in the information sessions: you will be a slave to your fickle and incomprehensible emotions for 2 years straight. And while I toss and turn in the changing tides of life in a cross-cultural context, I can’t help but measure myself against those around me, my Paraguayan neighbors and friends who seem to have tapped some mysterious reservoir of South American tranquility.
Understandably, part of the frustration I have with maintaining my personal state of happiness is a product of the fact that I am far from my family and everything I once knew. But as this place has become my home--and it truly does feel like my home--my patience with myself has worn thin. I can no longer explain away all my shortcomings with distance or loneliness; the problem is with me and the cultural elements that shape my personal perspective and define my experience. With the seemingly unlimited time I have had in this place to reflect upon and critique my own cultural underpinnings, especially as they have been laid so bare and exposed by such contrast, I have come to realize how much my own enculturation has molded my expectations and my perceptions.
I tend to consider myself rather independent minded and somewhat removed from the mainstream on many levels; surely, I would not consider myself a “typical American” (whatever the fuck that is supposed to mean). But what has become more than obvious to me from my experience outside that little bubble we call the United States is that, not only is our culture radically removed from the realities of the rest of the world, but also that such elitist isolationism has shaped me to a greater extent that I care to admit. Still, despite whatever privilege our country’s economic and military hegemony has afforded the American people, there is something much more profound that we lack, something that so many other people across the globe, often times the poorest of the poor, seem to have in abundance.
Let me offer a brief caveat before I continue. I don’t mean to idealize poverty or ignore the challenges and desperation that comes from a life without the promise of even the most basic of needs. There is no merit or silver lining in watching helplessly as your children starve or suffer from chronic disease. Such a lifestyle is not a choice but a symptom of uncontrollable circumstance and systematic inequalities (something that all too many boot-strap pullin’ Americans just can’t seem to wrap their heads around). But given such inherent uncertainty and vulnerability, it speaks to the true resilience and persistence of the human spirit that so many of these people can find a reason not only to smile and laugh, but to be genuinely happy and content.
While entitled Westerners (myself included) stress about trivialities, those most impoverished of our world are daily faced with life-or-death decisions and unbelievably trying circumstances. Where we complain about the momentary lack of the instantaneous access to the entirety of human knowledge (i.e. internet service) that delays us in posting pictures of our cats or what we had for lunch, other people of the world are toiling in the sun to produce enough food to keep their families through the next season. And yet they find reason to be content, whereas we might not feel fully at ease until we’ve contacted the internet service provider and bitched out the completely faultless phone operator on the other end. I am just as guilty as the rest, a fact that I have recognized in the past months and one that has challenged me greatly.
Given my current situation, I have endeavored to live a simpler life by reducing my sense of entitlement, weaning myself from luxuries and personal indulgences, and finding happiness in more tangible yet non-material parts of this life. It has not been easy, and I feel ashamed now that I realize how incredibly spoiled I have been my whole life, but so far it has led me to a much greater appreciation of the littlest things and it has helped me to find a sense of happiness that transcends whatever geographic or cultural-barriers I might have once perceived. Still, I am an American, and as much as I might hope to atrophy my sense of privilege, it will never disappear completely. For those who haven’t had the opportunity to take an outside perspective on Western culture to any meaningful extent, I wonder as to the nature of their happiness as well as my own.
Of all the countries in the world, it is the West (and countries with strong economic and cultural ties to it) that have the highest per capita incidences of depression and anxiety disorders by several orders of magnitude. While some of this is likely due to over diagnosis in the West for the sake of selling pharmaceuticals (and placating patients with consumerist mentalities) or underdiagnoses in the developing world, I believe that the majority of this contrast is founded in the variable effects that different cultural modalities have on the human psyche.
One cultural modality teaches us that we can only ever be satisfied with more, the next best thing, the newest gadget on the market, and that such satisfaction is only attainable through consumption. Our social, political, psychological being has been reduced to only the material items we can amass. From a young age, an assault of advertisements and product placements teach us implicitly that money can buy happiness. As adults, we are inaugurated into society only once we begin to assume debt (credit). These factors create human beings that cannot envision a better future, a future without the crushing weight of money-owed as we relentlessly struggle to keep up with the Jones’ (forgive the shameless cliché)—its no wonder we live in a chronically depressed and anxious society.
In this Western cultural paradigm, the ultimate (and only) expression of our “freedom” and “independence” is through our practices of consumption. As individuals, we forge our identities through our patterns of consumption and nothing else, foregoing the true freedoms of democracy without an afterthought, turning a blind eye to the rest of the troubled word, and settling instead for the platitude of “voting with our dollars”. As the cynical question goes, “Is Freedom just another word for many things to buy?” We have devolved into Homo economicus. We have set our sights too low.
For other cultural modalities, especially of the developing world (and I am speaking quite generally), such practices are impossible. For the poorest of the world, conspicuous consumption is quite literally unaffordable. These people have been traditionally marginalized and disenfranchised and often excluded from the markets of consumerist goods (although more and more corporations are now eyeing the poor as future exploitable markets). All too often, they are the ones making those very luxuries for bottom-dollar wages that we in the West get to enjoy. It’s socio-economics and it’s inequality, and through the perpetual dynamism of culture, it is integrated into society.
Such different economic conditions have created quite different cultural manifestations. Instead of being defined by what they consume, the individuals of impoverished cultures and communities more appropriately define their lives through their relationships to other human beings; it is as much a function of philosophy as it is a necessity of survival. The notion of a happiness that can be bought and sold is incongruous in such a context. Surely, with the advent of modern communications, they hear the consumerist message, but with limited economic abilities to engage in the global consumerist market, it falls on deaf ears (although, many could well argue that even the message itself is corrupting).
In such cultures, happiness is not over the next hill and it is not a distant notion, if it were it would likely never materialize. The uncertainty and immediacy of life below the poverty line means that delayed gratification would more often than not translate into no gratification—a crippling element of disempowerment and under-development in the third-world. So in response, people live in cultures that values human connection, strong relationships, family bonds the likes of which are rarely seen in the West (in my experience at least). Happiness must be founded in these few reliable aspects of their life. It is their lifeline, their livelihood and the wellspring of all their triumphs and tribulations. And it doesn’t have a price-tag. As opposed to the hubris of Americans who ‘do it all on their own’ (more than likely, that is just as much of a personal illusion as their purchased happiness), such uncompromising individuality is not only unvalued but maladapted. Below the poverty line no one can survive on their own—it’s a lesson in reciprocity for our world to ignore at its peril.
So what the fuck am I really trying to say with all of this, that the West is a soul-less society of consuming robots while the developing world has unlocked the true secrets of happiness and perpetual enlightenment? No. There are unbelievable merits the Western cultures offer and likewise the developing world is full of struggle and immense sorrow. I apologize if I seemed to have characterized them too strongly either way, but I was trying to make a point, and my point is this: in a changing world with an unpredictable future we cannot continue to rely solely on such quantitative, economic measures as indicators and guidance for policy. To do so belies the true essence of human nature, creating societies of consumers instead of societies of human beings. We are so much more incredibly complex and dynamic than GDP and economic growth will ever encapsulate, and to reduce our political objectives to simply making these numbers go up year after year will not only prove ultimately unsustainable, but it will eventually dilute and dissolve the most essential elements of the human experience.
Instead of a truncated and disconnected culture of individuals who only interact to conclude transactions, we should learn one of the many lessons that the developing world has to offer: above all, it is human relationships and contentment that lead to true happiness. At the same time, those people of the developing world deserve an equal share of the economic abundance that has been so unfairly distributed (or hoarded, or stolen) in the West. We should not abandon plans of development or economic growth, but begin to understand their limits and consider other ways of evaluating the true “development” of a society. A few suggestions include: 1) economic measures of wealth distribution (not just GDP per capita) with the variations on this theme along lines that consider minority populations and gender dimensions, 2) the World Happiness Index, 3) Indexes of civil liberties and social freedoms, 4) Human Security evaluations, 5) Quality of life surveys that evaluate disease, vulnerability, capacity of adaptation etc.
Don Zaccarias is out in the evening, sitting in his chair and sipping maté as always. I am about to go join him. Spending time with him is always a good lesson in being content. Here is a man born poor, raised poor, lived poor and who will one day die poor, but I couldn’t imagine someone more at peace with his life. Maybe it’s because his aspirations were always tempered by his economic disposition, maybe it’s because his lack of education limited his scope of the world and its possibilities; I am sure these are all true. But in the end, regardless, he is a happy man. He enjoys simple things and always has a smile to spare. In that sense at least, we should all be so lucky.