“What makes you happy?”
I ask the question of an old woman on a green mountainside beyond the remote village of Same, five hours inland from Dili, Timor Leste. Every line on her face tells a story.
“Being here with these people – my family and friends – makes me happy. We look after each other and I like this place. We are all together.”
And there you have it, folks. The secret to life. Being with the ones you love. Looking after each other, in a place you like. In spite of hardship – a jerrycan full of water lies at this woman’s feet, carried from a stream twenty minutes walk away – you know what’s important.
As I stand gazing out into mist through shrouds of green, past chickens that serenely scratch near bits of tin shackled together to make a private place to shit, my head goes feral.
Trump makes no sense in a place like this. Energy renewal targets? Who cares. Low carb diets and immigration policy and the side effects of antidepressants and why can’t I remember my Netflix login? Nope.
Give me the simple life. People I love, people I can look after, in a place I like. Life is tough, but these people are generous and spirited. They work hard. They hope harder. They get up, do what’s in front of them with what they have, make the best of it. Not for them the endless mental treadmill of deciding what to say, and wear, and spend – and should I respond to that post on Facebook or let it go? And what’s the truth about climate science and how young is too young for Instagram and what do I think about taking a stand on gay marriage in the church? Having a voice? Existential angst? What’s that?
Give. Me. The. Simple. Life. For long minutes, I stand there with tears hot under the surface and hammering heart thinking about all the bullshit this world serves up and wishing I could devote myself to just the basics – loving my family; a little more food for these families; kids whose skin is clean and clear instead of blossoming with scabies. Just that and no more. Just that. To be generous and focussed and determined and hopeful and That. Is. All.
And then a chicken lets out an almighty squawk – hit by a rock thrown by one of the kids who’s been silently observing me from behind a tree this whole time – and it’s like someone has slapped me hard around the head.
This is not my place and this is not my story. Outrageous fortune, yes, but I was born in one of the world’s wealthiest countries, with a Twitter feed that delights in manufactured outrage during Q&A. I live in a town with more cafes per capita than almost anywhere in the southern hemisphere. I’ve got pets who eat more than most people in this village. I’ve got two and a half degrees. And I can romanticise all I want about “the simple life”, but it’s not my reality.
Yes, people and place and care create happiness. But that doesn’t just happen. Not for me, and not for this community, who alongside happiness speak their despair: no electricity, no running water, no respite from the rains that drive mud into their homes so that dogs and chickens and pigs take refuge with them at night on the raised wooden platforms they count as beds.
This simple life often sucks, and standing around starry eyed creates zero change.
From me, to whom much was given, much is also expected. Putin. Energy policy. Instagram and the world it creates for my daughters. Anti-depressants and economics and the ethics of vegetarianism. Creating social change alongside a generation suckled on screens and scrolling. Immigration and how to compost and politics and letter writing and how much we spend on foreign aid vs what we invest in the local farming industry during times of drought.
If having more means anything at all, it means making use of it. Where I live, with all I was given, that’s a constant, fierce challenge of mind and heart and spirit. It’s far from simple, and engaging with it is often tiring, and depressing, and really bloody hard.
But that’s okay. If that woman’s face means anything to me – if happiness is something I truly want for anyone other than myself – then stepping up with heart and mind and spirit is the absolute least I can do.
Image – Same, Timor Leste. Cheers Market Lane Media