Happiness tends to be what you make of it

Happiness tends to be what you make of it

She was hideously skinny – every crevice, bend and curve in her bones shown clearly through her paper-thin skin. Her clothes were dirty and her feet bare. Her raisin skin was tanned and wrinkled, as though she spent many days under the hot sun without the protection of any type of shelter. She stretched out her hands as people walked by. Mid-conversation, I continued walking hastily and even slightly clutched my purse a little tighter – as if this 90-pound woman was capable of doing me harm. However as I glided by, with a wallet full of Costa Rican colones and the smile of someone carefree, I caught a glimpse of the woman’s eyes. My heart filled with shame; never had I seen someone’s eyes filled with such anguish. Quite frankly, she looked exhausted.

Despite the fact that Costa Rica is one of the world’s number one tourist destinations, this sight of homelessness and destitution is fairly common. On that same carefree walk of mine, I passed several other individuals, mostly older, living and begging in the street – a fairly harsh backdrop against the serenity of the beach and palm trees. Each one of the people living in poverty had the same striking look in their eye, exhaustion and fear. This look did not match up to many of the online blogs I had read from people who studied abroad; on the contrary, many students preach stories of about locals who despite their poverty, live in happiness and love. This, I found to be a lie.

This is not to say that happiness and love are absent or insincere – often families living in poverty or with low-incomes have much closer family units and tend to spend more time together. Additionally, happiness tends to be what you make of it. Unless we want to live a life where we wallow in the tragedy of our everyday existence, we must actively seek happiness in love where we are.

However, what I saw in the eyes of that woman in Costa Rica and thousands of women and people of color living in America was not happiness. Constructions of a “happy poor” are perpetuated not only by study abroad testimonials, but the media, television shows and literature as well. However, words like love and happiness only serve to sustain and impress the ideology of a complacent poor or lower class – as if one should be consoled by the thought that despite the hardships and trials of poverty, at least one has the grand virtues and existential elation of happiness and love to comfort them at night. Or as other students so eloquently elaborate, “Even though they had so little, they had so much happiness and love in their hearts.” Just one glance longer and one can see that this view is superficial – it fails to capture the sadness and anguish that poverty causes, it fails to acknowledge the person that exists beyond what we want to see. Individuals faced with these conditions are not happy despite their poverty because they do not exist apart from their condition. But rather, these individuals live complicated, multi-faceted lives where they struggle to seek happiness to make what sometimes seem to be unbearable conditions bearable.

These descriptions make it easier for us to be apathetic to the circumstances of our fellow men and women. It can justify putting in place social and legal impediments for social mobility. And finally, it can make it incredibly easy for people like me, who live in privilege and ignorance, to keep walking down the street despite looking into the eyes of someone who clearly needs help.

I wish I could say that I went back and gave her money. I wish I could say I turned around and held a meaningful conversation with the woman about how she came to live on the street. I wish I could say I donated to a homeless shelter the next day. I wish I could say that I felt better about passing the woman up when I did some volunteer work. But I did not. I still think about her eyes. And who knows, maybe she will be there tomorrow, or maybe she won’t.  

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