With Thanks: How Would We Live?

On NPR Morning Edition today, November 25, 2009, writer Daniyal Mueenuddin spoke with Steve Inskeep about his book In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. Mueenuddin said something like this: Social problems (meaning poverty and its minions, as I understood it) are at the heart of the success of the radical fundamentalist Muslim movement in Pakistan. I would argue, further, that it is at the heart of the success of most movements that aim to institutionalize and simplify morality while folding power into a small gang of origami swans and stashing them in the pockets of a small gang of . . . dare I say it . . . thugs. Fundamentalist Muslim cleric or drug cartel kingpin or myopic senator or matriarch of a dysfunctional dynasty, it doesn’t really matter; to me, they all create this paradigm of simplistic morality and condensed power. From Mueenuddin’s position, it would follow that eliminating poverty would cripple the thugs.

I buy this proposition. I buy it and throw away the receipt because I’m sure I’ll be satisfied with it for a long time. But it makes me wonder: How would I live in a world where power and well-being were distributed equally throughout humanity? What would my day be like today if I had no more stuff, no more access to health care, no more space to live, no more hope and no less than anyone else around the world . . . and everyone had enough.

Parameters, Of A Sort

While it’s not really fair, I have to toss away certain underlying problems with this question. For one thing, my definition of well-being is different from my neighbor’s, and we actually watch the same television shows and have access to the same brands of shoes; so you know my definition of well-being is different from a farmer in Darfur or a teacher in Gaza or a researcher at the South Pole or a Las Vegas prostitute who was imported from a slum just around the corner from me. Probably, though not certainly, Stephen Hawking’s definition of well-being is related to a physical and intellectual life far different from mine.

So, I have to admit my naïveté and move on. I have to try. Here’s my attempt: I define well-being as an absence of hunger, an absence of easily preventable illness or pain, and an absence of fear, as well as a presence of shelter, work, free expression, and free thought.

Even in my own definition, I run into problems when I try to clarify an absence of easily preventable illness or pain because I don’t know where the line would fall between easily preventable illness or pain and the rest of the illness and pain. Unfortunately for clarity but fortunately for humanity, it’s all relative. For the purposes of  my larger question, though, no one should die of malaria or small pox or dysentery or starvation (and I don’t know where this list ends, but it does), and no one should be the victim of domestic abuse or human trafficking or genocide. If that doesn’t fit well within your definition of well-being, we probably won’t agree on anything else either.

And while I don’t believe we could ever generalize a complete definition of well-being, I do believe that we could generalize a definition of wellbeing on a very simple level. I don’t believe we will, but I believe we can using what we know we have to offer in a global sense. It is my understanding from people wiser than me, such as Ruth Messenger, CEO of American Jewish World Service, that there is enough food for everyone in the world. Is there enough shelter? I would speculate that there is, but I can’t find a source to verify that. Is there enough health care? I really don’t know that one either, but vaccinations against Small Pox and physical barriers to Malaria — I bet there is. I write this essay with those assumptions in mind. Thus, my definition: core well-being is an absence of hunger, an absence of easily preventable illness or pain, and an absence of fear, as well as a presence of shelter, work, free expression, and free thought.

In the end, I think the core of the state of well-being is the same for everyone; it’s on the outer edges where it gets dicey, the edges where I think it includes easy access to world literature and someone else thinks it includes time at the beach/mountains/forest or money in the budget for a new pair of running shoes or the opportunity to own a home or access to ultrasound images of a fetus.

How Would I Live?

If I knew what well-being really was for the whole world, and I knew we could equalize it so everyone had enough, a day in the life of me might be very different from what it is now. I might have to participate in some effort to grow food closer to home. I might have to cut refined sugar and fat out of my family’s diet. I might have to choose between a good pair of waterproof shoes and several pairs of funky shoes. I might have to walk more and drive less, if at all. I might not be writing a blog. I might still be visiting New York, occasionally, to see a show on Broadway, but I might have to patronize local theatre more often so that I would have access to any theatre at all.

I’d certainly have to take more of an interest in the well-being of my neighbors, as well as the well-being of people I’ll never meet. I’d have to recognize the stake I have in the well-being of people who define those dicey edges of well-being differently from me. Every choice I’d make would have to strike a balance between us, which would draw a line between us, a line over which we could fight, a conflict that we’d have to resist in the interest of general well-being.

And what would those choices be? Could I eschew all waste and mindless consumption if I had to choose to eschew them? If I couldn’t, I’d have to concede power that, frankly, I don’t trust the rest of you to hold in my interest. How would I live, recognizing the stake I have in your well-being and the palsied grip with which I cling to my freedom?

How would I live? It’s a morally terrifying question, paralyzing in a way, and down the path to the answer, I see only despair. Damn! I was looking for well-being, and here I am at the mouth of despair. Now what do I do. I guess I have to believe that the despair is rooted shallowly in the ground around me and start weeding.

Life Without iPod

So, could I have my iPod and still live in a world where well-being were forever after meted out equally? Could I live in a house with more bedrooms than we need and still live in a world where others had as much shelter as they needed? Could North Carolina have a better mass transit system and more bike paths? Could my kids’ continue to be in classes of fewer than 30 students? What would I have to give up, and how would that affect my well-being, my real well-being? Could I learn not to want so many pairs of shoes? Could I find something to do without flipping a switch on a television or a computer? If I were convinced that equalizing wellbeing would shut down the terrorist recruitment institutions, the drug cartels, the human trafficking, the politically imposed famines and epidemics, could I appreciate my own well-being without all the things and opportunities and possibilities that I’ve collected?

God, I hope so. God, I hope I get the chance to try. But, honestly, I’m not giving up my iPod for anything less than that.


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