There was an economic parable I heard once about a businessman who ended up on a small tropical island. After several weeks on the island, he began talking to one of the locals.
“Hey, I see that every day, you wake up early, go fishing, come back and cook it with your family,” he said to the man. “Then you relax on the beach most of the afternoon, eat more food, and hang out with your community into the night.”
The local listened intently as the businessman continued.
“You seem to know these waters well enough, and I think you could be doing more. You could hire a whole fleet of boats, bringing in exponentially more fish than you are now! Your profits would be huge! You could retire young!”
The local man paused and thought for a moment. He then asked the businessman, “So what would I do when I retired?” There was a pause for a moment and he continued. “I feel like when I retired, I would wake up, go fishing with my friends, and spend the rest of the day on the beach with my community…”
This parable provides a tangible insight into something I’ve been thinking through lately, and have discussed with some friends. As a westerner living in Guatemala—a third world country—I have gained some much-needed perspective.
One thing I’ve noticed is the massive difference in goals and aspirations here. For instance, there are countless people here whose family runs a small shop or business of some sort. For the sake of illustration, we will say their parents make tortillas all day. These parents have children who, when they grow up, will likely inherit the tortilla-making business, as will their children and so on.
My gut reaction to these people’s lives was pity. I felt bad that I was offered so many options for my life, while they seemed somewhat limited in their scope. I could go to school and be a lawyer or doctor! I could become a YouTube star and be followed by the masses, or maybe go back to seminary and found my own church! The possibilities are virtually endless.
But after being here a few months, my perspective has shifted slightly. On the one hand, is it sad if someone wants to be where they are, but does not have the resources to rise above their current position? Of course! However, what about people who don’t even know these possibilities exist?
There is probably a fancy term for this, but I’m coining it as The Low-Ceiling Paradox. It looks like this: As a westerner, I have a higher ‘ceiling’ of potential than most people in the third world. I have health, education, disposable income, et al. The tortilla-maker’s son has a much lower ‘ceiling’ as he doesn’t have as much (if any) education, his health is generally poorer and his network and vocational potential is more limited.
Now, you would be more tempted to feel bad for him, right? If you’re like me, you may think Aw, poor guy! We should push him into a higher-ceilinged world so he can be happy!
What I realized recently is that people with lower ceilings are more prone to be happy.
Unlike me, the tortilla maker has realized his dream. He gets to do the work he knows and doesn’t long for all the crazy things I have been programmed by advertising to want. For instance, if constantly stream the videos of YouTubers with millions of followers, I will never be happy until I have caught up to them (and even then, probably not). I will always envy best-selling authors until I am one.
Perhaps America’s cultural exports of raised blood pressure and an overwhelming sense of silent competition don’t actually lead to happiness. Maybe productivity and notoriety are not keys to the door of satisfaction.
I’ve been trying to convince myself that this is true, or at least, that I could stand to take a few steps in that direction for the sake of balance and internal peace.
Since moving here and working a full-time job, I have seen productivity as a key to unlocking meaning and purpose. So if work hours and output are what give meaning to our lives, what does that say when our output is lower? What about when we get sick for a week and can’t meet our normal quotient? Logically, it would mean that we become less valuable and have no purpose during that week.
That simply can’t be true.
Whenever I get too caught up in work mode and productivity, it’s easy to forget my own inherent value and purpose, grafted into my being by the Creator of the universe. Yes, He made us to work and be productive in all we do, but that work was never declared to be the thing which gives us our worth.
Perhaps pulling in the reins on our crazy dreams or expectations can help us return to peace and clarity in our lives. Maybe it’s okay to take a day off.
I find myself trapped in a tension of wanting to be crazy productive all the time, but also to be able to be still and meditate and be in the presence of God without having to work for it. It’s important to remember that that time is not wasted. Minutes spent in stillness and solitude are not wasted minutes.
Maybe those of us living in wanton excess can learn a thing or two from those born with less. Maybe we can learn that happiness is less about material or opportunistic benefits and more about gratitude and presence.
Maybe it’s okay to just sit still for a minute, looking at the day. And maybe God will meet us there as well, once we stop trying to impress Him and simply enjoy His world.