One day I was walking down the street in Sivanandanagar and snapped a photo of a woman holding her sleeping infant girl on her shoulder. The woman turned and asked, in broken English, if I would give her a rupee so she could buy a chapatti for her daughter. She wasn't begging. I'd traveled enough to know the score on this type of transaction. It was a fair trade: She was giving me the photo opportunity in return for a ridiculously small fortune (about 2 cents). It occurred to me that, had I refused, quite possibly her daughter might not have eaten that day.
She was one of the richer people I met on the street during my stay in India. She probably didn't have to sleep on the stone steps by the Ganges river, wrapped only in a thin blanket. She had not been forcibly handicapped to enrich her begging opportunities.
Putting Things in Perspective
I returned to the U.S. with a new, deeper understanding of what it means to be poor. I realized that the version of poverty held by most Americans is an ideal for comfortable wealth in many Third World nations.
I think a lot of us, myself included, could easily slip into feeling sorry for ourselves this holiday season, because we're not feeling as financially secure as we have in past seasons. (In case you've missed my earlier posts, the publishing industry is not at the top of its game, to phrase it as charitably as possible.) And I'm not suggesting we don't have a right to those feelings, but rather that a good trip to India might put things in a whole new perspective.
You don't literally have to go to India. All you really need to do is spend a minute imagining an icy Himalayan wind whistling down from the foothills in the December morning, cutting right through your threadbare blanket. Then look around your life and find something to feel grateful for. It shouldn't be hard.
Change a Life for Capacuccino Money
I currently sponsor a Rwandan woman, a war survivor, through Women for Women International. With my sponsorship, she can attend a special year-long training program where she'll be taught her rights, learn a trade (or how to start a small business), graduate and begin life all over again. The cost of her transformation is $27 a month for 12 months.
Let's be honest. How many of us spend more on cappuccinos?
When a person or a country has enjoyed great financial prosperity and then watched much of that bounty swept away, we are left with two choices: We can focus on what has departed, or we can focus on what remains.
I find it an interesting quirk of human nature that money doesn't alleviate financial insecurity. Have you noticed that? You'd think it would, but we must know in our innermost selves that anything gained can be lost. In my experience, no amount of money can fix that basic insecurity, and it seems like the more we have, the more we fear how much we have to lose. Also, the more we have, the more we focus on having.
And why, when things are going fairly well, do we so often we find ourselves worried about petty concerns, forgetting what's important?
"I'm So Lucky"
When I forget what's important, I try learn from the guy on the news, standing in front of the chimney of what used to be his home (before the fire, the hurricane, the bombing, the earthquake, the tornado). When they stick a microphone in that guy's face, he tends to say, "I'm so lucky, because my family is okay." This is a man who's just relearned what's important.
I have a new daily habit for staying on track. Every day I post 140 characters or less onto my Twitter, Facebook, Myspace and LinkedIn account with the hashtag #DailyGratitude.
Why do I do this online? Why isn't it enough to just know inside myself what I'm grateful for?
I've tried that, and it works fine for a little while. Then life intervenes, and I forget. And then that odd quirk of human nature takes over, and I go back to focusing on some small thing I think is going wrong, or, more likely, something that might go wrong somewhere down the road. Then again, it might not. Usually it doesn't, but that doesn't seem to stop me from focusing on it.
Gratitude is easy to misplace.
Grateful for My Hands
But once people start telling you they love your "Daily Gratitudes," you're stuck. You're committed. Which is exactly where I want to be. Some days I note blessings as simple as hearing the surf crash as I lie in bed, or a warm fire in the wood stove on a cold morning. It's not what you ultimately find that's important. It's looking for it that makes the difference.
One day it was a full blog-post tribute to a Rwandan man who became an artist after losing both hands in a rebel attack. I'd heard him speak at the Rotary in a nearby town. That day I was grateful for my hands.
One day it was the birds who sang a chorus outside my window at sunrise. And I didn't even know if they sang every day. Because I'd never thought to listen.
The beauty of the holiday season (if done in the spirit intended) is that it invites us to focus on what we have, not on what we feel we should have, what we've lost or what we are afraid of losing. Of course, it's up to us to accept the invitation. Most of us will wake up to presents and sit down to a feast, even in these economically challenging times.
Hopefully we will realize how fortunate we are, even at the very bottom end of our prosperity.
Catherine Ryan Hyde is the author of 16 published and forthcoming books, including the novelsJumpstart the World, Love in the Present Tense, Becoming Cloe, and Pay It Forward, which was translated into 23 languages and chosen by the American Library Association for its Best Books for Young Adults list. Read her blog on Red Room.