Quest for Happiness

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At last week’s book club meeting, we discussed our monthly selection, Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder. Everyone there was amazed by Deo, the young man who escaped genocide in Burundi and Rwanda and came to America.

Surviving homelessness and hunger, Deo is befriended by a number of people who have faith in him, and he becomes a doctor. Yes, a doctor, a medical one. He doesn’t do it for fame or fortune, however, and Deo uses his education, experience, and expertise to return to Burundi to set up clinics.

As we discussed this outstanding person and his many attributes, we began talking about one of my favorite topics of late, happiness. I jumped on Gretchen Rubin’s bandwagon a couple of weeks ago when I first began reading The Happiness Project. While I agree with Rubin and all of the psychologists and philosophers she quotes about the importance of happiness, my book club and I wondered if people who are in survival mode also ponder its importance.

While Deo and his countrymen were literally running for their lives, did they wish for happiness, or did they simply want to survive the day, the week, or the month? When Mormon pioneers were crossing the Rocky Mountains in freezing weather, often having to bury their dead children along the way, were they thinking of how to be happy or how to make it to Salt Lake (a destination they weren’t really sure of yet)? Did the prisoners of concentration camps in Germany and Poland dream about “oh happy day,” or were they wishing for an extra crust of bread?

I don’t know the answers to the above questions. It does, however, make sense to me that when a person’s physical and material needs are supplied, then she begins to think more about wants, personal fulfillment, and yes, happiness.  What do you think? Is happiness something everyone thinks about and desires, or is it something that people are more likely to consider after their survival needs are satisfied?

Denver and Mr. Ron

In my lesson on charity this morning, I included a reference to a recent novel chosen by my book club, Same Kind of Different as Me, and I decided to review the book here. This is actually a revised version of a review I posted at Amazon.com a couple of weeks ago. Truthfully, it took two years and two attempts before I was hooked by this book. When my son-in-law Charlie gave it to me and described it as “wonderful,” I began reading it right away. I stuck it out for two nights, but I couldn’t get into it for some reason.

“Where did the author come up with such a character as Denver?” I wondered. Could anyone have such a poor and miserable life? I knew that poverty, homelessness, and prejudice were serious issues in our society, but I just didn’t want to be reminded of it right before falling asleep. Plus, the dialect annoyed me. Did the author really have to make people from the South sound so illiterate and backwards? Then Ron entered the picture, and while I thought the accounts of life in the 1960s were pretty interesting, I began to get irritated with this character too. Was the reader supposed to believe that someone would wear matching plaid shirts and shorts, black knee socks, and brogans to a college football game in the 1960’s?

When my book club chose it for our March selection, I picked it up again. “Surely there’s something redeeming about this book for so many people to love it,” I thought. I downloaded it on my Kindle and listened to it on the way to and from work. It wasn’t long before I got involved in the lives of these two men, Denver and Ron, wondering when their lives would intersect. Living parallel lives in different parts of the country, their experiences couldn’t have been more different. One was an illiterate black man who, tired of being poor in Louisiana, hopped on a train and ended up homeless in Fort Worth. The other was a white millionaire, a college grad who seemed to live a charmed existence. Married to Miss Debbie, he was a successful art dealer.

Somewhere along the line, I realized that the book was true…not based on truth, but absolutely true and told by the men who lived the stories. I’ll leave it up to you to read where and when and how their friendship began and grew. I’ll just say that the millionaire who set out to be a do-gooder philanthropist and the former sharecropper who later had a front row seat at a presidential inauguration were forever transformed by their shared experiences. Interestingly, the one who set out to give ended up being on the receiving end. He broadened my thinking too; because of Denver, I’m using Micah 6:8 as yet another guide for living my life.

As the book progresses, Denver and Ron take turns telling their life stories and their individual perceptions of the events described in the book. Each of them shares scenes so descriptive that the reader can see them and feel their essence. Whether Rocky Top, rural Louisiana, the “hood,” or the homeless shelter is being described, they all seem real. Denver’s visions of spirits, occasional scripture references, and pithy words of wisdom are as thought provoking and interesting as Ron’s big art deals and spiritual transformation.

The person who served as a catalyst for the book was Miss Debbie. Denver and Ron loved her, and so will you. Even as I type this, I’m wondering if I can persuade my husband to go to Fort Worth during Spring Break. There are some people I want to meet there…and an art gallery I want to visit.