Poverty and contentment

Some things have struck me recently about poverty.

1. In Barack Obama’s book, Dreams from my Father, towards the end he recounts his visit to Kenya for the first time, the nation of his heritage. Although his father and grandfather are both dead, he meets many other relatives including his grandmother, some aunts, half-brothers and sisters, and many other more distant relatives. Some are doing well, others are struggling to make ends meet.

On one of his visits, travelling with his half-sister Auma, he came through a town when his uncle lived. She was surprised at what she saw.

“What’s happened here, Sayid?” Auma said after we were out of earshot. “There never used to be such begging”

Sayid leaned down  and cleared away a few fallen branches from between the rows of corn. “you are right,” he said” I believe they have learned this thing from those in the city. People come back from Nairobi or Kisimu and tell them, ‘You are poor.’  So now we have this idea of poverty. We didn’t have this idea before. You look at my mother. She will never ask for anything. She has always something that she is doing. None of it brings her much money, but it is something, you see. It gives her price. Anyone could do the same, but many people here, they prefer to give up”…

I thought about what Sayid had said as we continued to walk. Perhaps he was right; perhaps the idea of poverty had been imported to this place. a new standard of need and want that was carried like measles, by me, by Auma, and Yusuf’s archaic radio. To say that poverty was just an idea wasn’t to sat that it wasn’t real; the people we’d just met couldn’t ignore the fact that some people had indoor toilets ot ate meat every day, any more than the children of Altgeld [a deprived area of Chicago] could ignore the fast cars and lavish homes that flashed across their television sets.

This is not to say that poverty didn’t exist, but the idea of poverty – having less than others, has destroyed their sense that they can live on their own. Suddenly, there were new things that they needed, which they had been living without for years, without which they now considered themselves poor.

2. I was reading that book whilst on holiday in Spain, visiting friends. Since we last saw them, they have bought a new car. Their old one had literally packed in (couldn’t even part-exchange it), and they wanted to start a family, so they invested in a new car. It was a comfortable, spacious, shiny family car. I found myself looking at it, comparing it to our smaller car, and wondering whether we should upgrade. Of course, there is really nothing wrong with the car we currently own, and there is no good reason to exchange it. It was simply being seduced by a bigger, newer thing.

3. The tenth commandment talks about this desire to continually want the new thing. It says

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. You shall not set your desire on your neighbor’s house or land, his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” (Deut 5:21).

Perhaps this commandment was not put there for God’s own amusement, but for our benefit. God knows what we need, and by not desiring or coveting things that other people have, we are saving ourselves a lot of worry and heartache, we resent our own situation less, and we will be happier in the present.

The apostle Paul says:

“I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” (Phil 4:12)

– he wrote these words from a prison cell. Perhaps part of the secret to his contentment was a lack of covetousness. By not dwelling on his situation when compared to others, and by living in the real present rather than the possible future, he found contentment. He realised that in God he has everything he needs. “Thou shalt not covet” and we’ll be happier for it.

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