On New Year’s Eve my teenage daughter wrote me a card which said, among other things: “Thank you for being my dive partner! I love our crazy adventures, in or out of the sea. You’re my adventurer! I know we have our silly squabbles, but I love you to the moon and back and we WILL go to every national park and log a million and one dives together…I know 2014 will be full of amazing adventures and experiences for us.” It goes without saying that these precious words gave me greater satisfaction than anything I had received over the holidays. In retrospect I have not done much with my life, no great discoveries, no business empires, nothing the world will remember me for. However, clearly there is something in my relationship with my daughter that is working, and therefore very satisfying for both of us.
Now, while it’s true that certain enabling conditions had to be met to go on some of these adventures, for example, the ability to take a few days off work, and a small amount of money to rent scuba diving equipment, it’s also true that most of our adventures together have not involved much more than packing a tent, a stove, and some hiking boots, and heading off into the wilderness. Could we have experienced more happiness staying in a swanky hotel or a plush resort somewhere? It’s not obvious in this case that money, beyond the amount needed to meet the minimum enabling conditions, would have produced any greater happiness. Indeed, in our example I’m convinced it would definitely have detracted from the experience.
However, I want to make a different and perhaps more profound point. When I am in the wilderness I survive on far less than anyone receiving the minimum wage. I live with no phone, radio, TV, iPod or refrigerator. Even the homeless in a large city have more options to seek shelter from the elements than I do. Yet, if my daughter and I were forced to spend years in the wilderness with others, at near subsistence, our lives would not necessarily be without happiness and dignity. It is possible to live a modest and decent life with close to subsistence levels of material resources. However, in the West politicians who have never experienced poverty themselves, seem to be obsessed with the idea that poverty has to be eliminated, and that the way to do this is to throw enormous quantities of money at the problem. They fail to understand that poverty has less to do with a deficiency of material resources than it does with the conditions that make a modest and decent life possible, namely safety, self-respect and self-fulfillment. Address these latter issues and the problem of poverty will shrink to its rightful perspective.
“One’s dignity may be assaulted, vandalized and cruelly mocked, but it can never be taken away unless it is surrendered.” Michael J. Fox