The Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth

My oldest son squirms and mopes in his economy class seat, flouncing like a 1920’s film starlet and sighing deeply enough to drive a small wind turbine. He’s bored. He’s been on this stinking plane for almost an hour, and he wants off.

Some perspective: We’re on the second of two 1 1/2-hour hopscotch flights to Spain, on our way to visit the picturesque Mediterranean seaside town in which we will soon be privileged to live. The ride is smooth, the temperature in the plane comfortable, the view from the window of the French Alps piercing a pristine carpet of cloud. We’ve just come from the Business Lounge of the Zurich airport, one of those rarified spaces reserved for those fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to rack up ungodly air miles, where we sat in plush leather seats and ate free gourmet food prepared and served by people who may or may not ever make enough money to actually take a flight from the airport at which they work.

And so I outlined all of that for him. In detail and with probably a bit of venom. I explained to him that his ostentatious suffering was, under the circumstances, not only unwarranted but actually offensive. ‘Disgusting’ I think was the word I used. No doubt I went overboard, but I wanted to impress upon him the absurdity of his melodramatic misery.

We – you, me, my family, our friends – are deeply privileged. Oh, I know, the financial crisis has created a lot of anguish and anxiety for a lot of people, and things don’t look to be getting significantly better any time soon. But if you’re reading this, you have both a computer and the leisure time in which to use it. Chances are neither you nor anyone you love is worried about getting enough food today, and if you want a drink of water it gushes safely and cheaply and plentifully out of a tap. Privileged.

Many years ago an English friend of mine visited Jamaica, where his family is originally from. He got talking to a local man, and told him that he had roots on the island.

“But now you live in England and are rich,” the man said.

My friend grew up in a rough part of London and his family was, by English standards, by no means rich. Firmly working-class. “No, no,” he responded, “I’m not rich. Far from it.”

“How did you get here?” the Jamaican asked him.

“We flew.”

“Then you are rich,” the man concluded. My friend was stunned by this simple statement and all it implied, and he began to look at his working-class London upbringing from a fresh perspective.

We seem to live in an age when many young people feel entitled to their iPhones and iPads and tablets and mountains of toys, and while we could blame the media and advertising and peer pressure and the like, we, their parents, are often the primary culprits. We are complicit both in our own compulsive consumerism and in our desire to provide only the latest and best and coolest for our kids.

My wife and I are in no way guiltless here. Last Christmas I discovered that we had purchased so many things for our eldest son that it would have been ridiculous to actually give them to him all at once. So we held some back for his birthday. Then forgot all about them and amassed another superabundance of stuff.

But I’m working on two things: 1) sifting through and streamlining our possessions (“Simplify, simplify,” admonished Thoreau) and 2) working on teaching my kids, and myself, to realize and appreciate just how immensely, intensely lucky we are. Since we’re soon packing up and moving to a new country, the former should be fairly straightforward. The latter, though, well, that’s another matter.

It takes a shift in perspective, an honest evaluation of how much we already have – physical comforts, friends, a loving family, and so much more – to achieve the latter. And once you’ve introspected yourself into this higher plane of appreciation, how do you impress this enlightenment upon your kids? Just telling them that they’re pampered, lucky little buggers probably isn’t particularly effective. I mean, when your mom told you to finish your vegetables because there were starving children in China, did it make you look at that spinach in a whole new light, make you praise your good fortune at having access to abundant leafy greens?

I’m not completely sure how to achieve this. I think it takes constantly reminding them – and yourself – to be grateful for what you already have, and not to expect and demand always better, bigger, more. Not to automatically give in when your kids ask for something as small as an extra piece of chocolate after dinner or as big as the new tidbit of technology that everyone else has, just because you want them to like you. To risk the tears and tantrums that denial sometimes brings. To talk about how lucky we are, how blessed by circumstance and situation, and to get them actively involved in giving, sharing, and spreading their good fortune to those not so favored.

““To find the universal elements enough; to find the air and the water exhilarating; to be refreshed by a morning walk or an evening saunter… to be thrilled by the stars at night; to be elated over a bird’s nest or a wildflower in spring – these are some of the rewards of the simple life. ” So wrote American naturalist John Burroughs, and while I’m not going to be chucking out my laptop anytime soon or going to live at Walden Pond, I think it’s important to be cognizant of the facts that chances are we pretty much already have everything that we really need, that despite our daily worries and inconveniences our lives are fairly easy, and that many of the things we think are important are, in fact, not really.

Or as Dr. Seuss much more rhymingly put it,

“When you think things are bad,
when you feel sour and blue,
when you start to get mad…
you should do what I do!
Just tell yourself, Duckie,
you’re really quite lucky!
Some people are much more…
oh, ever so much more…
oh, muchly much-much more
unlucky than you!”

eric-lewis-i-m-just-grateful-we-were-able-to-turn-our-pants-into-shorts-new-yorker-cartoon


 

 

 

127 thoughts on “The Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth

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  4. This is my favourite blog post of yours. It rings so true, and is, as always, so beautifully expressed. With times being hard here in Spain, we have markets to raise money for those in need locally, to which we all contribute toys and clothes. That way, my kids are aware that they’re luckier than some – well, not sure if they’ve got that message yet, but they know we’re helping people a bit, in our own way.

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    • Thanks, Fiona. My boys’ school often has collections for refugee families here in Hungary, and his soon-to-be school in Spain has connections with a couple of children’s charities, so the do get reminders that there are a lot of people not so blessed. I have to remind myself too sometimes.

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  5. It’s crazy to me how often I need this kind of reminder. Crazy because it’s not as if being less materialistic and enjoying the things you already have is this martyrish way of living that you just have to do to be a Good Person. Life is actually just so much more enjoyable that way–which is why it’s mind-boggling to me that I can’t seem to just remember that for 2 weeks at a go!

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    • I have a hard time remembering it for a whole day, sometimes. I’m frustrated easily these days, and I have to remind myself to take a step back, relax, and appreciate all the good in my life. Thanks for your comments!

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  6. Coming from a teenager growing up in this fast-paced, materialistic world, I know first hand of the spoiled, narcissistic nature that we can acquire and the insatiable desire to have more and be better. It’s almost inane considering that we live in a first world country with everything at our fingertips.
    A suggestion to those who are trying to open their teenager’s eye to the true abundance of wealth and fortune they possess would be to show or explain to them first-hand how different the standard of living was when you were growing up as opposed to now. Also, a more direct approach, taking them out of their comfort zone and showing them harsh realities that do people face in this world.
    I’m not here to make myself look like the ideal teenager that values everything I have but do have friends that are way more fortunate (financially speaking) than I am and that are less fortunate than I am financially. I feel that I have the opportunity to balance out a lot of my troubles with those of my friends. (If that makes sense..)

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  7. Thoreau was a man before his time! I enjoyed your reflection on his lesson: simplify. Thank-you. I am about to simplify my home today in an attempt to begin Spring Cleaning.

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  8. I love this. I lived in Asia for three years. (Just moved home.) It was a huge switch when I first moved there and then again coming home. The things I’d come to expect in my life (washers, dryers, etc.) that were the norm were an exception there. I’ve come to see how much we have that we don’t *really* need. You’re right. It takes a shift in perspective (hence the name of my blog, haha). It sounds like you’re raising your kids right. 🙂

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  9. Reminds me of a friend of mine who has kids. They try to keep their stuff to a minimum and the way they do it is to tell the kids that they can only have a certain number of toys. They have to get rid of one in order to get another and they impress onto them how much they like a particular toy already. Also they emphasize sharing. They’re great kids. I felt like your post really got to the heart of that! Thanks for sharing! 🙂

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  10. Awesome post! Having been fortunate enough to travel around the world, it really is striking how and where different societies live on a daily basis. And yet, most of them are quite happy with very few things…it’s definitely a mentality we need to bring more into our lives in the good ‘ol USA. Look forward to reading more of your posts!

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  12. Really enjoyed reading this! I feel lucky and thankful.
    I’ve just moved to Norway and feel very excited about everything around. I wish to be able to watch that swan or mountain forever with the same amazement as the first day!

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  14. I was in Nepal and had a similar conversation as your English friend with a local. He knew his village and the great city of Kathmandu in the distance, as a dream. But flying or the ability to visit another country? That was far beyond his reality.

    Thanks for sharing your well articulated musings.

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  15. Reblogged this on randomglobetrottingthoughts and commented:
    Reblogging this post and commented: I don’t have children yet, but I do identify to this. Something that I really think is important, and which my parents transmitted to me, is spending many beautiful moments OUTDOOR and developing a taste for nature… Although I am also surrounded with many technological addictive gadgets, I try to leave them all behind, get away and spend time in contact with flora, fauna, at the beach, in the mountains, anywhere natural. It usually provides me with a great sense of existence and makes me feel greatful, happy and alive. I recently moved to a small island where the only kind of life possible, is a simple one… Coming from big cities, it was hard at first but I’m now getting used to it and learning how valuable this kind of life is. So no matter where you are, don’t forget one of the keys is: stay in contact with what is REAL and ALIVE.

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  16. Reblogged this on The Treasure Trove and commented:
    I have been reading a lot lately about people simplifying their lives (or wanting to) or, what’s another way to put it.. paring down, maybe? I believe this is the third article I have come across in two days that refers to living more simplistically. Come to think of it, I was just on John Michael Talbot’s site, and, if I had to venture a guess, it would be that he probably lives quite simply, or sparsely. That is to say, without a lot of “stuff” filling up his life and space. WordPress says this blog is “Freshly Pressed.” I don’t know if that means it’s a new blog, but I can tell you one thing: the author is NOT a novice. It’s a good read because it’s well written and has worthwhile information as well. Enjoy!

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    • Thanks, Christina! The “Freshly Pressed” thing just means that the WordPress staff has picked a particular post to share with a wider audience. They choose and post a few each day. Thanks for the reblog!

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