I've never lived in the Third World, unless you count that one-year stint in Jerusalem when I was three (a subject for another day).
I have very little first-hand experience of real poverty.
I did live in and around Barcelona for ten years—not conditions of misery by a long shot. Coming from America, though, I imagined I was enduring hardship. Only a few stores had fresh milk. My American pizza pan wouldn’t fit inside my little Spanish oven. Apartments were tiny, by my standards, and so were refrigerators, washing machines and cars (not to mention people, and families). Life was lived on a small (if much more elegant) scale.
I got used to that.
But what really struck me, every time, was our homecoming. We made a point of returning each summer. We’d sleep off our jet lag, sit down over a nice, hot cup of terrible American coffee, sweetened by the company of beloved relatives--and then maybe we’d run out of Q-tips, or tinfoil, so we’d drive down to Walmart.
We’d delegate someone to stand guard over the little kids in the car, for fear they’d lose their minds altogether if they stepped over the threshold. It was so enormous, so cheap, so packed full of options! A whole aisle dedicated to salad dressing! (I didn’t even like salad dressing, but who cared?) Not only did they have leche fresca every day, they had soy, organic, lactose-free, whole, 2%, 1%, ½% (!), and skim. Not only did they have potato chips, they had plain, rippled, BBQ, sour cream & onion, sea salt and fresh-ground pepper, kettle-baked, and Pringles.
But what took me aback the most were the sullen faces of my fellow consumers. They were decidedly not bowled over by this cornucopia. In fact, they showed no sign of noticing it. They were sulking over in the Meal Solutions corner, muttering to their girlfriends, “Oh, man, they don’t even have the low-fat BBQ organic hot n’ spicy in the extra-large.” A startling number were morbidly obese, forced to maneuver around in little wheelchair carts, stretching painfully upwards to reach the Double-Stuff Oreos. (No, I don't believe the government should ration junk food. But it was a striking sight to my unaccustomed eyes.)
Study after study confirms the old cliché: Money can’t buy you love, and it can’t buy you happiness.
Granted, it can buy an escape from destitution, and thus from a certain amount of drudgery, extreme inconvenience, sickness and even tragedy.
So do give alms! Be generous!
But studies keep finding that, once basic needs are met, more money doesn’t equal more happiness. Multi-millionaires are “a generally dissatisfied lot, whose money has contributed to deep anxieties involving love, work, and family,” according to an article in The Atlantic.
Now, what does all that have to do with the discontented Walmart guys? They were there for Cheetos, not yachts. They weren't living in luxury--not the elegant, sumptuous kind, anyway.
Still, the sheer abundance of little choices struck me, and I remembered Soren Kierkegaard,
who defines one variety of despair as "possibility unchecked by necessity." It might be a bit melodramatic to diagnose a bunch of depressed shoppers with an acute case of Kierkegaardian despair. But all this possibility was clearly not making them very happy, either.
It’s true enough that material wealth can’t satisfy the human person. What I'm trying to get at, though, is something slightly different.
It’s good that we have all these choices—and not just of potato chip flavors. It’s good that we can customize an ipod instead of listening to whatever’s on the radio, or choose from thousands of websites or films, instead of being limited to whatever’s scheduled by PBS, NBC, ABC or the local movie theatre. Of course it’s good to have the choice of gluten-free, or salt-free, or sugar-free food, if that’s what you need.
But ultimately, it doesn’t solve anything. Rules and regulations imposed on the person are an inadequate substitute for the inner capacity to judge actions with wisdom. Similarly, endless external options will never produce satisfaction within a person who expects to find definitive fulfillment in any of them, or who has come to believe that he’s entitled to a customized life. His dissatisfactions will only multiply, and his soul will be as cramped as my little Spanish refrigerator.