I just went shopping.
My local Woolies is the Hyde Park branch. If you don’t know South Africa or Johannesburg, it’s definitely on the “right side of the tracks”. I once heard a rumour that 90% of the money spent on “black” credit cards (as in the top end of the credit card spectrum – this is not about race!) is spent at Hyde Park. I don’t think it’s true, but you get the idea.
A very, very grumpy woman nearly rear ended me in the queue as I dithered about lunch box treats. “Just get out of my way,” she muttered, scowling, as she pushed past me. I moved and apologised. She glowered.
This woman must have been about 70, although her perfect hair, make up and manicure made it hard to tell. Her clothes were good, her jewellery was expensive, she paid with a credit card and she had a trolley full of goods. Life, one had to assume, had been relatively good to this woman. Yet the down turn of her mouth was clearly permanent; the lines that emerged were from frowning, with not a laugh line in sight. I watched her mutter an almost soundless “thanks” to the teller – a man who will most probably never know the privilege and the wealth that this woman has – and I thought. “Let me never be her.”
Oh I hear you – “Money doesn’t buy happiness” you are yelling. “Maybe her life is really hard,” you are yelling. “Maybe her husband beats her and she has four disabled children who are all incontinent” you are yelling. You’re right, maybe. But I will tell you this – if you really believe that money does not buy happiness, you have never been poor. Because money buys many things that help one have happiness. The husband that beats her? She has the money for escape, and for a lawyer who will get her a great divorce settlement. The children? She has the money for round the clock medical care. Believe me, she’s not changing those adult nappies. And resulting depression? She can medicate it with the best drugs from the best psychiatrists.
It is true that there is sorrow that money cannot cure. And it is true that there are people who are just determined – in the face of everything that life offers them – to be miserable. But the truth of the matter is that millions of people – good people – face a life of poverty, starvation, suffering, torture and abuse, as well as life’s usual challenges. To walk around permanently with what my Dutch father called a “prit-lip” when you are one of life’s lucky is simply unnecessary.
I am one of life’s lucky. Indeed, compared to millions, I am unutterably lucky. Perhaps I know it because through hard work and planning, I have much more now than I had growing up. Or perhaps I know it because I have eyes in my head and can see the suffering around me. I am not saying that I can never be sad, or angry, or simply irritable. But today I resolved that when I am old, and people observe me, they will see a small smile on my lips, and my lines will be those of laughter and not despair. To a large degree, my life is an accident of birth. But that doesn’t mean I should not embrace it with grace and gratitude. (Which sounds religious, but trust me, I am not religious.) It’s about gratitude for the now. Starting now.