Poverty and Happiness

June 15, 2013 § Leave a comment

I know that our heart is always in the hand of God; it is possible for God to make us happy and content if we are in difficulties, poverty and sickness; again it is possible for him to make us miserable even if we live in wealth and all the luxuries of this world. Hence we see every day poor and wretched people enjoying the bliss of their heart; but the rich and the kings are sad and depressed in their riches, because of their limited desire. (Treatise of Zera Yacob, chapter 10)

When I spent a couple of months in Ethiopia, I was struck by the fact that when people have little or nothing, they need each other. As a result, they have tightly-knit communities, and they help each other out. When someone came into money, he shared it with his friends. I found this awkward: in wealthy societies, we pride ourselves on our independence, and expect the same from others; we try to draw sharp lines between our personal relationships and our economic ones.

Nobody turns down wealth and stability, but financial security also tends to isolate us, to the point that, after the incredible accumulation of wealth witnessed in the West over the course of the 20th century, many North Americans now have no friends beyond their own spouse. Since friendship is one of the main elements of a meaningful, fulfilling life, this is an enormous loss. It is hard to say that a house of one’s own in the suburbs is worth it.

Religious observance has declined in the West along with social ties. Just as we feel less dependent on each other, we feel less dependant on God. Since we feel less dependance, we think about ur Creator less, and call upon and worship him less. Since a sense of our cosmic purpose is another major component of a meaningful life, this also a great loss. It is not merely, as Zera Yacob says, that God can make the poor happier than kings, but that in some ways it is easier for Him to do so.

And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:6–24, ESV)

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