The Price of Privilege
Above: Circa 2009, Elsa and Marcos after receiving a present from their Nana — it didn’t take much to make them happy.
The other day my ex and I saw something on the news about the Dominican Republic. We saw a picture of a rainy, flooded street and it brought back a rush of memories for us both of living there. We felt wistful.
When the moment passed I said to my ex in a quiet voice “I know you miss living there.”, to which he nodded silently, and I said “Me too.”
So why do we miss a place with so many problems, problems which are as clear in our memory as everything that is good? I know my reasons, I wrote about them long ago in my post Life in High-Definition Video but I was curious what my ex’s reasons were. The first, and really only reason he gave was “People are happy.” How true.
It is a conundrum that is not unique to the Dominican Republic. The poorer the country, the less they have on average, the happier the people seem to be. I remember this as a child when I visited Haiti. The children we are all smiling, flashing their brilliant white teeth against their dark skin, playing with sticks and scrap metal. Most of the children had no shoes, dirty clothes and swollen bellies from lack of proper nutrition. As I child myself, I only saw smiling faces, children full of joy and it made me happy.
Dominicans, by contrast, have more than Haitians and it is “happiness quotient” is therefore a little lower. Within the Dominican Republic, it is the upper class, the privileged, who complain more, who dwell on the negative. But the poor, who have the greatest reasons to be unhappy, find joy in every day things from a cool breeze which relieves from the blistering midday heat, to their favorite song playing on the radio.
The United States is a far more privileged country than the Dominican Republic or any other third world country and our unhappiness reflects this. We don’t appreciate that we have running water, electricity, maintained roads, public libraries, good schools…no, we don’t even think about these things and instead complain about any glitch or bump in our day. This goes back to my theory that all Westerners should live in a third world country for at least 3 months to give them some perspective.
It just seems that, on average, the less one has, the less one needs to make one happy and by contrast, the more one has the more one needs for that same happiness. The people in poor countries do not dwell on the difficulties of their life, difficulties that in many ways they are powerless to change, instead, they celebrate the little things in their life that are good. We can all learn from this.
Although as American, I am privileged compared to someone in the third-world, by American standards, my upbringings were far from privileged. Yet, for the most part, it was a happy childhood. Both parents were artists, divorced, and broke. There was lots of turmoil, little money and in the mix was the problems with my legs which kept me in the hospital most of my youth. But although there are memories that are painful, there are others that shine and those are the ones I cherish. People used to say how awful it must have been to have to spend so much time in the hospital. But all I had to do was look to the left or the right and see a kid, a fellow patient, who was worse off. This perspective is not because I am so much more empathic than others, it is because I saw, literally, children who faced much greater challenges than mine and I thought to myself that I should be grateful.
My experiences continued to draw me to challenges, to people in situations far worse than mine and that is, in part, why I moved to the Dominican Republic.
In my time living in the Dominican Republic, I went from a somewhat privileged life where I had a big apartment in the central part of town. One room with air-conditioning (a real luxury there) nearly 24/7 power and water. Then times got tough and the peso lost nearly all its value, trading from 25 pesos to $1 when I moved there to 50:1. I billed in dollars so all my clients put their projects on hold which effectively took away all my income. I was pregnant with my son at the time.
I moved, out of necessity, to “que lado”, the eastern part of the capital. The house was nice but it was in a “barrio”, poor neighborhood with dirt roads and burning trash piles. My first week there the power was out for 3 days straight. When the power went out there was also no water as the pump didn’t run. I had to heave 5 gallon buckets of water out of the cistern. I was 6-months pregnant and the father was never there. I was alone in a foreign country, pregnant and vulnerable, with limited power and water, in a neighborhood I didn’t even dare to walk around.
But because I was pregnant I kept my spirits up. I wanted to bring my son into the world with joy in my heart. Life was tough and lonely there but I reminded myself that I had chosen to move to the Dominican Republic and I needed to take the good with the bad. I reminded myself once again to be grateful for what I could — the beautiful baby inside me.
I lived there for a year and a half. Ever so slowly business picked up, life got better and finally I made just enough money to move back to the center of the capital. Oh did I appreciate the little things then. Even if the power went out, there were places to go with light instead of the entire neighborhood plunged into darkness. I could walk to places…in many ways life was so much easier.
But compared to my life now, it was still very hard. Now I live in a very nice town, in a nice apartment complex with a community pool. If there are problems in apartment there is a maintenance crew who come immediately to fix it. In the Dominican Republic I had one apartment with a filtration problem and when it rained water would drip down in to the electric switches and flames would burst out. Forget about maintenance, there wasn’t even an ambulance you could count on coming if you got electroculted. I’ve come a long way.
I have always lived by the motto “Happiness is a choice” and I truly believe this. Even before my experiences overseas I have tried to seek happiness in everyday things and let go of what makes me unhappy. I consider my time in the Dominican Republic to be a gift because I never take anything good for granted anymore. I miss their simple pleasures.