The Joy of Not Having Much
A few days ago my vicar came back from Sierra Leone and gave a moving talk on what he saw. Whilst the poverty was mind blowing, there was something else that touched me profoundly. That was the abundance of joy and the strong sense of community. Whilst us in the UK have an abundance of material things, it seems to me that we’re very poor when it comes to joy..This echoed what I saw when I travelled across Mongolia, and highlighted by this picture I took, which ended up one of my favourites of the trip..It was a common occurence that when you drive across the Gobi desert and come across a settlement, that the kids of the camp run ahead of you so that they can say hello. These three were full of smiles, and the eldest one in the middle was definitely the boss! The love she showed (and bossiness!) towards the other two were stunning. I loved the fact that the little boy had probably knicked his sisters shoes to make his way across the stony desert!
Yep, they were poor, but their richness in other ways stood out. As I climbed back into the ambulance we were driving to donate to a cancer charity in the capital a few thousand miles away, it struck me that the value of the gadgets we had in the glove compartment were worth more than the entirety of their family’s possessions and annual income for the next 5 years. Yet they had something so wonderful that I didn’t. It struck me powerfully when I got home, walked into my house, and looked at all my stuff that failed massively to bring the kind of joy that I experienced in the middle of the Mongolian desert.
One of the things that alarms me is that when we talk of poverty in the UK, is the emphasis on the lack of material things Yet I think the greatest poverty in the UK is not material possessions, but the emotional & spiritual stuff that seems to be continually eroded and replaced with something that doesn’t seem to fill the gap.
The reason I am writing this is simply due to a prompt of a man I captured on camera in Norwich’s Castle Meadow in November 2015.
Although I never got to see his face, I could imagine it all too clearly. Weathered, haggered, yet full of stories. It took be back to Mongolia when I remember meeting a man in his 90s in his community, the grandfather, surrounded by his family and despite his age fit as anything. He was proud of his horses and his ancient Russian motorbike which he was keen to demonstrate his riding skills.One of his grandsons, or maybe great grandsons as there were about 90 years between them, was a 7 year old boy on his feisty horse. The sense of community was amazing, everyone had their part to play, a sense of belonging, and couldn’t sit around else the whole community would suffer.
Sadly, many people are abandoning the hardship of the nomadic life and heading to the city, attracted like so many of the promise of a better life.
In the capital, I met the other chap. Swaggering around, slowly pickling his liver with vodka which is usually the staple diet of the homeless. He’s probably dead by now, but the thought that haunts me still is the man on the left, proud, loved, purposefully living within a community could quite easily end up like the chap on the right. Many of these men die on the streets, get cleaned up with the rubbish and are forgotten.
New York is famed for its bright lights and glitz, but like the picture above, it suffers massively from homelessness. Just like the trip to Mongolia, my trip to New York will be remembered by this photo.
Sandwiched between two designer shops, one selling diamonds and the other clothes, his face still haunts me. So many people in New York are like this. There are 60,000 homeless people, 20,000 living on the streets. Yet they are so transparent to so many people. When I contrast the wealth of New York, with the ‘poverty’ of Sierra Leone or Mongolia, I do wonder who is the richest after all?
Maybe we are looking in the wrong places, seeking joy by pursuing the wrong things, only to discover when we have all those things we could have had what we were really looking for all along..