Poverty, the Meaning of Life, and Six-Year-Olds

Published: July 9th, 2015

By Jessica Caron

I’m so excited to be interning at the Donella Meadows Institute this summer- I’ll be taking classes for my Dartmouth sophomore summer as well, and it’s wonderful to be able to, each afternoon after classes, cross the Connecticut River into a new state and do something that really matters in the world.

Four summers ago, I went to the Dominican Republic to teach summer classes at a school run by a Christian mission organization. I vaguely knew I wanted to get hands-on experience working in a big poverty alleviation scheme, so I decided to do this, and it was much, much more than I had imagined.

The people living in the Dominican Republic, by and large, have been passed over by the global economic system. I saw so much poverty there: the younger brother of one of my students whose stomach was so distended I could barely look at it, one of my good friends who volunteered at the school who had a massive pit behind her house that was their toilet, another volunteer who was sold by her father at the age of seven. The fact that all of these people could wake up each morning and go about their lives normally and be happy- not all the time, but a lot of it- was astonishing to my sixteen-year-old self.

When I think back on that summer, yes, I am reminded of Dana’s declarations, so simply and powerfully worded, that “poverty is wrong and preventable [and] the exploitation of one person or nation by another degrades both the exploited and the exploiter”, and it is beautiful to hear it said, to have those truths affirmed in a world that does not seem to care.

But more than that I am reminded of Dana’s emphasis on the intangibles like love, joy, and cooperation. The people I met had something to keep their spirits up, and it wasn’t anything material.

Dana talked and wrote a lot about the power of these intangibles. In essence, most of our environmental problems exist today because of our high consumption rates, which are so high because the world’s richest societies have reached an unspoken consensus that more- more money, more stuff, more prestige- is always better. Will this really make us happy?

Personally, I think that the answer is no, because the worst-case-scenario environmental consequences of society’s collective desire to keep growing ad infinitum could come close to destroying life on the planet as we know it. But the answer is also no because when I was little, I would always wonder what really rich people would do with all their money once they got it.

Writing this blog post and thinking about my philosophy of life, I wonder if endless economic growth is the goal of our society (because, truly, it is) at least in part because the original richest and most powerful people subconsciously worried that if they stopped acquiring wealth and decided to be content with their lives, they would be forced to look at how fulfilling their lives really were, and they might not like the answer.

This idea is as old as the hills, but from a personal level, that summer in the Dominican Republic totally changed the way I thought about life, both others’ and my own. Everybody always says that the most important things in life aren’t things, but it was that summer that made me realize that I, deep down, believe I could not ever be happy if I had none of my favorite things- no nice clothes to choose from, no Internet to play on, no books to read, no piano to play, no money to take vacations or go out to dinner with. It was also that summer that made me wonder if maybe I’m wrong about that- if maybe I could find happiness no matter what situation I was in, if the joy of my faith and of the mountains around Hanover and of sitting with friends on the little sand bank just around the riverbend from Dartmouth could be enough to make me content, if maybe I could find moments of joy even in a life of never enough as my students did.

We try to do so much in our lives and don’t spend nearly enough time to “smell the flowers… feel our bodies, play with children, look openly without agenda or timetable into the faces of loved ones”, as Dana put it. One day I would like to see the whole human race being more grateful for everything that is good in their lives, happier, kinder.

The children in my first-grade class, who were of an age to notice everything that is unfair and bad in their lives much more sharply than adults do, were the happiest children I’ve ever met. I hope to be like a Dominican first-grader someday.

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About The Donella Meadows Project

The mission of the Donella Meadows Project is to preserve Donella (Dana) H. Meadows’s legacy as an inspiring leader, scholar, writer, and teacher; to manage the intellectual property rights related to Dana’s published work; to provide and maintain a comprehensive and easily accessible archive of her work online, including articles, columns, and letters; to develop new resources and programs that apply her ideas to current issues and make them available to an ever-larger network of students, practitioners, and leaders in social change.  Read More

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