The summer after I graduated from high school, my family took a trip to Zambia and Botswana. More than the beautiful landscapes and the amazing wildlife that I encountered during my time there, the people that I met left me with an indelible memory. Every person that I came across was incredibly happy. It seemed that they were perfectly content with their lifestyle and the environment around them. Though Zambia and Botswana are among the most stable African nations, people who live there on average make a small fraction of what Americans make. Yet virtually every person I met in the towns that I passed through was in high spirits and was more openly cheerful about their lives than most other people I’ve encountered before or since.
Though they seemed happy, the Zambians and Botswanians I met did have a fair share of problems to deal with on a regular basis. A man who lived on the banks of the Zambezi River told me that one of his biggest fears was getting so close to a hippo that it would chomp his boat in half (seriously). But overall, I left the continent with the impression that even though life for them was harder and not as luxurious as the life I led, the people seemed to be happy with what they had. The problems they had weren’t as significant because they didn’t let them be.
The first presidential debate on Wednesday brought those memories back to the surface. Not because the candidates talked about U.S. foreign relations with African nations (they didn’t), but because the debate centered mostly on problems. Some of these problems were easily recognizable, like the shaky economy and massive federal deficit. Others were ones that I didn’t even know about, like the possibility that Big Bird might not have a job if Mitt Romney is elected president. (Seriously, Mitt? Cutting subsidies to “Sesame Street”? That’s my childhood, man. Check yourself before you wreck yourself.)
All joking aside, these problems are real, and we’ll have to find their solutions sooner or later. Yet the problems that Obama and Romney discussed on national television aren’t part of our everyday lives. Yes, the economy affects how many job options our graduating seniors have, and the health care debate may affect how long we can freeload off of our parents, but for the most part, other problems take precedence. Like how boring the food options get only a few weeks into the semester. Or the eternally frustrating state of cell reception on campus, where keeping or dropping a call can come down to a matter of shuffling a few inches.
Everybody has problems. Some problems are shared, and some are unique. For the most part, however, they are problems that are minor in the grand scheme of things. I’m sure the man on the Zambezi would gladly trade the boat-chomping hippos for a decision over which cell phone company offers the best reception. Problems vary based on the their context. It just so happens that in our case, problems tend to stem from dissatisfaction with an already advanced society. As the comedian Louis C.K. once said, “Everything is amazing right now, and nobody’s happy.” We’re too willing to overlook the opportunities that we have. Instead, we pay attention to areas in our lives that are lacking. Think about the last talk you had with a friend. Chances are, part of that conversation had to do with some of the problems you were dealing with at that time, whether those were midterms, a bad professor or those drunk guys who decided to do the “Gangnam Style” dance in your hall at 3 a.m. When is the last time any of us made it through a whole day without talking or thinking about small stuff like that?
One of my friends told me a story about a philosophy professor who came into class one day carrying an empty jar. He proceeded to fill it to the top with golf balls. After his students told him it was full, he repeated the process with pebbles, and then sand, until the jar was well and truly full. In this scenario, the professor explained, the jar consisted of your life, with the objects inside of it constituting your life’s different aspects. The golf balls were the most essential elements to a happy life, namely family, friends, health and driving passions. The pebbles were smaller elements, like jobs, cars, houses, etc. Sand was everything else, the small stuff filling up the cracks.
A truly happy life could be achieved even with just golf balls in the jar. The vast majority of us are fortunate enough to also have pebbles and sand to take up the small spaces that remain. I just wonder how those people in Botswana and Zambia were able to be happy with some golf balls and little else, when we too often overlook the golf balls, the pebbles and the sand in order to seek something else. Perhaps that’s just the way we are. But perhaps that’s not the way we should be.
Jordan Siedell is a Trinity senior. His column runs every other Friday. You can follow Jordan on Twitter @JSiedell.