Friday, October 07, 2005

Abject Poverty And Happiness: Do Not Compute

Let’s start with a loose definition of what “happiness” could possibly mean to as many people as possible.

Though I’m sure it is not totally encompassing or all inclusive, here’s one that possibly contains as many notions about it as we all are different in our individual thinking:

Happiness, pleasure or joy is the emotional state of being happy. The definition of happiness is one of the greatest philosophical quandaries. Proposed definitions include freedom from want and distress, consciousness of the good order of things, assurance of one's place in the universe or society, inner peace, and so forth. ...

And this came from this source:

The World Values Survey published by the University of Michigan last November had this to say about its study:

“..according to feelings of "subjective well-being"—which combined its happiness and "life-satisfaction" scores…”

The Philippines as a country got good marks in that survey.

And many Filipinos with bright-red nationalism emblazoned on their breasts proudly extolled the elated though floundering country for scoring very high. Though momentarily stunned, they found both comfort and pride in learning that the above survey/study graded the Philippines as scoring very high compared to its Asian neighbors, and better still, scoring higher than the envied richer ones.

Thus a number of local pundits, intellectual elites from both academia and media, or maybe even those inspired by their nationalistic pride, given and buoyed by the gift of tongues and words, put on their thinking caps, sharpened their wits and pens, and started the task of putting to words the grotto that will mark and showcase this enviable honor, and on which other like-minded Filipinos may worship.

It was quite an elixir, however short lived it may have been, to soothe the incessant anguish occasioned by the festering economic and political sores that beset the country. Not to count those fortuitous events for which no personal blame could be attributed.

But given all the ills we find in the country, what possible rationalization could possibly justify such an overtly difficult finding to understand? Filipinos the happiest amidst staggering and pervasive poverty, ignorance and illiteracy?

Still, credit the Filipino’s ingenuity and resourcefulness to come up with a possible and neat justification, and for some, even some implicit gospel truths for why it is so.

One pun-ny journalist started with the question about whether happiness is a state of mind, a state of the pocketbook, or simply, one sovereign state. But in a change of pace and with gravity, declared that to the Filipino happiness is not material, but social.

Huh? Well, meaning that the Filipinos find happiness in a social gathering among his own kind, bantering and exchanging jokes, cell phone numbers and silly nicknames. I suppose they become most unhappy trudging back to their houses or hovels and grapple with boring solitude and persistent want. They could be hungry, unkempt, broke, no health insurance, etc., but as long as with barkadas, extended families and friends, they are mostly happy.

Happy, you say? Well, again happy because it does not take much for the Filipino to be happy. A little food here and there. Some tingling coins in the pocket. A movie every now and then. A few cheap drinks with friends in the corner store. Mababaw ang kaligayahan, or easily amused, his words echoed.

Yeah. But I’m not even sure if the shallowness refers to the quality or quantity of any amusement or happiness index. Please do not ask me to explain. I probably mean something like this. Though hungry, I’m still happy because I can walk to scavenge for food , while others similarly situated simply cannot even walk.

Then the same journalist proceeded to expound on two admirable traits that he had found in the Filipino: resiliency and self-sufficiency. And who is to deny that those are superbly admirable qualities? But most probably these traits are also found in most other countries in the world, especially those in want and need. And there are scores to name.

The question then is that might not these qualities be necessary and consequential results for those in want and need for a long time? That because of ingrained, pervasive, and prolonged exposure to poverty and its deprivation, the indomitable human spirit has found for itself a path to some form of deliverance. Under such onerous conditions, it probably becomes necessary for one to be resilient and be self-sufficient, unless one is prepared to be overwhelmed and die.

Now please let me hearken back to our loose definition of happiness above, and extract this part of that definition: freedom from want and distress.

I can best bring out my point on this by relating something I read recently (also saw a segment of it on TV) about two very popular but giggly movie stars who went to some obscure tribe in Africa, filming some footage for an upcoming series. Can’t remember exactly what the visit was all about, except that those two very prominent, high-profile but out-of-their-element stars were the anointed ambassadresses (one may even have been an A-list model, can’t remember).

The show described the visit and highlighted some translated interviews with some brightly-garbed though sullen-faced tribeswomen, with our two celebrities taking turns interviewing them. The TV segment clearly depicted the very crude and rudimentary existence the natives lived in that rather undeveloped place in Africa, flashing typical scenes quite familiar to TV viewers. A mud hut kept together with dried cow dung, topped with a thatched roof of some kind, dirt floor, no indoor plumbing, not much furniture, women in their crude native garbs, sullen faces both of adults and youngsters, etc.

In fine, not quite blazingly novel, thus not really newsworthy in these difficult times, nor was it eyebrow raising. Just your typical and familiar picture of abject poverty in yet another undeveloped area of the world. Untouched by civilization, one might say.

Until the time that this one particular celebrity is back in her elements, in front of a TV camera, and being interviewed by an equally popular celebrity host. That’s when it gets a little surreal. For me, at least.

In very comfy surroundings, with feet crossed atop a very hospitable couch, in front of a very admiring audience, she declares how lucky and happy those native women were. That we, the USofA audience, could learn a lot from them, from their simplicity, their seeming innate happiness, the admirable simplicity of their idyllic lives, etc. In short, we should rather imitate them and not exploit our environment the way we in the civilized world do.

Okay. I had then suggested in my mind that maybe she (the celebrity) should stay with them for a month or so, and not just a day or two which they actually did. Then maybe she can understand with some reasonable depth how difficult it is to live in very crude and unsanitary conditions, bereft of all the bountiful goodies that we normally take for granted in the civilized world.

Grocery stores to purchase relatively cheap, wholesome, clean, and nutritious food. Indoor plumbing to take care of proper waste disposal. Shelters with clean and comfortable floors for us and our children to live under. A house that is comfortable and sufficient for shelter and protection from outside elements. Maybe medical services to take care of our ailments, whether petty or catastrophic. Etc. Etc… The usual trappings that advancing civilization has blessed us with.

My simple but clear point is that people living in prolonged and pervasive poverty cannot possibly know any better. Not even any better to understand what happiness could possibly be in this world which has been blessed with the advances that civilization has wrought. If you, your family before you, and the families before them have always known poverty and its many deprivations, how could you possibly understand what life could be for you and your loved ones, the same way those who are sharing and partaking of the blessings understand what possible happiness and contentment could be derived? How could aspirations for a better life be germinated and nurtured under such arid environment?

Ignorance is definitely not blissful in this instance. Neither could any outsider rightly claim that there is no ignorance involved in any decision about happiness and contentment emanating from under such dire circumstances.

After all, do we not normally correlate and tie up poverty with ignorance or illiteracy?

Hopefully this has provided some explanation why.

1 comment:

  1. thanks for dropping by the site the other day. Tracy, California huh...well lucky you! it's pretty grim here now in Manila. A light rain is falling, but the sky is leaden with ominous portents. The water cannonaded a prayer rally yesterday. It feels like we are lumbering towards a cliff..


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