The last time I went to a mall was in late September when I was getting ready for a trip to the kingdom of Bhutan and Nepal for a Himalayan Writing Workshop. I would be half a world away and was worried that the weather might be too hot or too cold for me. I tend to be on the warmer side and always pack sleeveless shirts on any trip. I learned, however, that women in that part of the world wear clothes that cover their shoulders and legs. I have so many T shirts, but almost all with political messages or logos from sport races. I wanted to look appropriate and didn’t want to make any political statement that might be controversial in a foreign country – for safety sake! – so I bought some new ones.
While in Nepal, the organizer of my trip, Mr. James Hopkins, the founder of Quilts for Kids Nepal, a nonprofit organization selling quilts to send at risk children to school in Kathmandu, took me and a few people in the group to a hidden beggars camp near his Bhoudanath neighborhood in Kathmandu. The beggars came years ago from India, living a nomadic life at the time. Each family in this camp has a small room without a restroom, kitchen, dining or living room. Each room was big enough for a small bed where the parents sleep at night, and the rest of the floor was for the children to huddle at night. The kitchen is a corner of the room, with a portable gas cooker on top of a small table. We sat on the floor, on a mat, meeting the teenagers in this beggar camp. The girls were radiant and friendly. They managed to dress well, although I wondered where they took their showers or went to the bathroom especially at night?
We asked the three senior students what they needed. One replied that she and her friends needed new notebooks since they had run out of them. While our seniors are worrying about what dresses to wear to the prom, which new iPhone model was just released, how many likes they will get on their latest instagram posts, these girls just wanted some notebooks. How did they manage to live in the dark at night? How much do they know about life in America? One of the girls from this beggars camp is about to graduate with honors from Sweet Briar college in Southern Virginia, with a generous donor paying for her tuition. She will go to graduate school next year. She will escape a situation where she might have been married at twelve years old and buried in deep poverty for the rest of her adult life.
I left the beggars camp in a daze, as I often did whenever I travelled to third world countries. I remember the shadows in Myanmar at night, sitting in the dark in front of the huts to avoid the heat. Here, we worry about a few mosquitoes or stink bugs that sneak into our house in the summer. On the other side of our comfortable world, nothing is a big bother. One of the most important daily tasks is getting a meal or two to sustain the day. If you can’t even keep your children from hunger, how would you have time to think about their schooling?
The first weekend back home, I was listening to an interview between a young journalist and a financial therapist. Probably only in the Western world can we find financial therapists. The journalist was lamenting how bad her financial situation this year was, that she often could not afford Uber Eats. In Bhutan, there’s the Gross National Happiness Index. Soon, in the Western world, happiness will be based on the Uber Eats Index.
Christmas is coming, but I am not going to accumulate more things. I can see the stress on many people around the holidays. The heavy traffic around the malls, the frantic look on shoppers rushing around for more goods, just to get in line the day after Christmas either for returns, or leftover items at deep discounts. A patient last week came to my office an hour late for her appointment. She was lamenting how she got stuck on the highway after leaving a mall, as many cars were exiting at the same time and no car could move. She did not finish her Christmas shopping list yet, since she has five siblings and each of them have quite a few children. She still had nieces and nephews to shop for.
How much is enough? Would enough make us happier than having more?
One of the highlights from my trip to Bhutan is an evening when we Himalayan Workshop Writers spent time with a young leader of the Gross National Happiness Centre. One of us asked her how the Bhutanese seem happy when they don’t have as much as people from the West like us. She gently explained the concept of “having enough.” When we want more, we tend to suffer. When we feel we have had “enough,“ our contentment brings joy. This message seems simple, but with profound insight. Whenever we want more of something, whether it’s power or wealth, we struggle to get it. Any struggle often brings discontent and unhappiness.
My Christmas list this year did not require me to drive any distance. I made a list of non-profit organizations that need my help. The recipients will be from many parts of the world. We are all interconnected, like pieces on a world puzzle. Our sharing and caring is a certain bridge to build happiness for both givers and recipients.
I am glad I will not clutter my closet with more clothes. I left all the new T shirts and a second pair of shoes I brought to Kathmandu behind for several girls in the beggars camp. The delightful girl who wants to be a physician got my new socks with medical patterns. I wanted her to think of me nudging her from behind to not give up her dream of becoming a healer. Maybe someday she will heal the sick in her beggars camp. We all can do some small tasks to heal someone, or to lift someone into a better path in life. We all can do it while not having to give up so much from our end. We have enough of what we need.
“Until we have begun to go without them, we fail to realize how unnecessary many things are. We’ve been using them not because we needed them but because we had them” -Seneca