Monday, January 12, 2015

What lessons poverty?

San Miguel Escobar
I'm in my second of three weeks traveling with and teaching a group of undergraduates from the University. We've taken a number of trips and done some service work. Unsurprisingly, we've seen a lot of poverty here. And, though what we have seen does not approach the poorest of the poor, we have seen and talked to and spent time with people whose lives are vastly different to our own.
We see poverty in the street, in the central park of the city, on the porches of the churches—especially, La Merced. We saw it in Guatemala City, in San Juan del Obispo, in San Miguel Escobar, at Pacaya volcano, on the "chicken bus."
And, one of the striking things is that there is so much happiness in the midst of such poverty. It's not hard to seem or be happier than I do or am, but there is little question that so many—obviously not all—people who have so much less than I do, or than any of us do, are so much happier than the average person you are likely to see on the street at home. 
Of course, it is possible that they only seem to be happier; we can never really know another's internal states. Or, they might just be acting; they could be putting on a show for the American tourists. Either of these is a possibility, but I doubt that either is the case. A principle of charity demands that I take people to be showing their real states. 
Assuming that people are nearly as happy as they seem, there are at least two lessons the mildly reflective tourist can draw. One is conducive to a more virtuous life, the other a vicious one. 
First, something good: Our material possessions don't guarantee happiness. It is possible to have much more and not to have captured happiness. This calls for a reflection on our own values. What am I pursuing? Why do I need a bigger house? A newer car? Another watch or pen? The latest phone? Here are people with none of those things and they are happy. Have I merely been convinced by capitalism, or by the comparison and competition Rousseau identifies as endemic to our property-based social contract, that I need these things or that in gaining them I will gain or get closer to happiness? This lesson, this reflection, can help me refocus and perhaps get closer to happiness, to flourishing, to eudaimonia.
Something bad, and just as common: If people can be happy in such circumstances, things should be left as they are. What we see is a golden age, a window onto a simpler time and simpler lifestyle. And, it's good enough for them. (Though, this is always colored with a touch of Voltaire's Brahmin: it might make them happy, but it could no longer satisfy me; I've gone too far in another direction.) If these people can be be happy as they take their laundry to the local fountain as their children play in the dirt; if they can be happy with minimal or no plumbing; if they can be happy with homes roofed in tin held down by rocks in the corners; if they can be happy when their mules are stabled and chickens and ducks penned next to the porch on which they eat their meager meals; if they can be happy though they are broken and bent by lives spent working a little bit of land to produce coffee and get a little bit of the profit the vast majority of which goes to a large corporation, well, who am I to worry about this? In fact, in their golden, more perfect state, I ought almost to envy them. (This is the romanticism of the rural and the lumberjack and the primitive that permeates so much of our late capitalist society; witness the hipster and the pickup truck and the Presidential aspirants in cowboy boots.)
It might seem this second lesson I have drawn is one that no one could possibly draw. But I think it is as common to see poverty as picturesque as it is to see it as so abject that nothing can be done about it. Both are recipes for doing nothing, for not really caring, and—though the directions are different—for dehumanizing.
There's got to be a way to take the first lesson and still think that we have an obligation to make the lives of others better in material ways that they themselves wish for. 

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