Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, yet it’s only a 90 minute flight from one of the wealthiest areas in the world, South Florida. If you travel to the capital city of Port-Au-Prince, you won’t see the same massive divide between rich and poor that you see in other large cities in third world countries. You’ll just see poverty and blight that existed long before the deadly earthquake of 2010. Haitians have great need, while their neighbors all around have more than enough. I know from experience. I spent a week in Haiti during a Christmas break I had in college, spending most of my time working in a women’s vocational school, helping out with a conference and working with the neighborhood kids nearby.
Visiting Port-Au-Prince, Haiti
The poverty in Haiti was unlike anything I had seen in my life prior to that time. Most families lived in cinder block houses that were no more than 50 or 60 square feet in size (see the image above of Port-au-Prince’s Ravine). There was trash and filth all over the streets, which were themselves hardly navigable. There were stray dogs roaming around everywhere. A aura of angst and depression loomed over the city. All of that caused a heightened self-awareness of what I had in terms of material possessions or resources. It also had me extremely self-conscious of any behavior that would demonstrate any ignorance to the daily struggle that many Haitians face.
During my time in Haiti, I stayed at a guest house run by some missionaries in the Delmas neighborhood of Port-Au-Prince. It was a large guest house, but that week it was relatively quiet save for a church group from Michigan who had come down to work on some construction projects. One morning, I was having breakfast with this group (I had gone down to Haiti alone) and proceeded to have the most painful dose of second-hand embarrassment I’ve ever felt in my life. As I sat there with my plate of eggs, sausage links, and banana, I watched these ten or so Americans proceed to grab plate after plate of food, stuffing themselves with as much as they could possibly consume. I saw the guest house cook and his assistance struggle to keep up with the demand, pulling out more food from the refrigerators (presumably intended for the next day), and cooking it for the group. To make matters even more uncomfortable for the observer, most of these people were clearly well fed (if you catch my drift) and their table manners were atrocious talking with food falling out of their mouths, crumbs and bits of food all over the floor and table, etc.
Now I’m not trying to sound self-righteous as I’ve said plenty of ignorant things and committed several cross-cultural faux pas, but I felt a great deal of shame as I watched this excessive consumption in a country with so much need. I thought to myself, “how could they not see the poverty around them and tone it down?” “Some of that food could easily go to someone who is starving.” “I wish Americans didn’t behave like that.” Of course I can’t control the behavior of other people. Furthermore, I really just need to worry about my own behavior and how I can help people in need out of the abundance that is allotted to me. But, the memory of that meal obviously still sticks with me and constantly has me evaluating my consumption. To this day, I regularly ask when is enough really enough?
First Step: Awareness of your Surroundings
In that situation in Haiti, my surroundings made me acutely aware of what I had and what I needed. That awareness, I believe, is the critical ingredient to a realistic level of consumption and subsequent satisfaction. I would argue that my housemates from Michigan, didn’t have a depth of awareness of Haiti’s poverty that would cause them to adjust their behavior. Thus the first step in defining “enough” is establishing an awareness of your surroundings.
Second Step: See the Impact
The second step in understanding “enough” to watch the impact consumption has. Most of us don’t naturally know what too much consumption really is until we’ve experienced the effects of it ourselves. Like a child whose eyes are bloodshot from playing too many video games or a college student who’s sick from having too much to drink at his first frat party, many of us have to learn the division between enough and too much through some discomfort. Similarly, you can observe the effects excess has on other people to construct your own frame of reference. I’m sure if some of my housemates had experienced some adverse effects from eating all that food, they would have started scaling back their consumption.
Third Step: Needs Versus Wants
The third and final step to understanding what is clarifying wants versus needs. For most people living in developed countries, wants far exceed needs. We want a three car garage, but we don’t need one. We want front row seats to watch our favorite sports teams, but we don’t need them. We want second or third helpings of good food, but we don’t need it. Sometimes, this gets tricky because wants are emotional. Our hopes, dreams, and ambitions are usually tied to them. We’re reluctant to give them up. However, separating wants from needs is critical to figuring out what’s really “enough.”
I really hope that none of this has come across as self-righteous or judgmental. Living a satisfied life of moderation is an ongoing process and probably not something that any of us truly ever arrive at. Nevertheless, we can still strive to focus on having enough, not having more.
Do you have a story about “having enough?” Share it in the comments below!