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A strong sense of gratitude is a powerful liberating force
Patrick Asare -- Author of 'The Boy from Boadua' Patrick Asare -- Author of 'The Boy from Boadua'
For Immediate Release:
Dateline: Wyomissing, PA
Monday, May 27, 2024


Much of the suffering that we witness in the world today is caused by other people’s insatiable appetite for wealth and power. The degree of misery varies based on geography, local politics, and a host of other factors. In Africa, weak institutions enable the gluttonous elites to loot in a manner that poses an existential threat to the downtrodden. State coffers in many parts of the continent are wiped clean, which means the poor are left with little to survive on. Large numbers of people actually die of starvation in some African countries.

While conditions are not as dire in the rich world, it cannot be assumed that life for those at the bottom of the economic ladder there is easier. People in this group tend to have little to no savings, so even a temporary slip into unemployment can sharply raise the risk of homelessness and hunger. In a place like America, access to healthcare for the poor is a perennial problem.

It is understandable if those who live in destitution, whether they are in rich or poor countries, feel that they have little to be thankful for. But the overwhelming majority of the rest of us don’t have that excuse. Yet, we are often as unhappy as those who actually have a reason to be. That is because we have a tendency to ignore what we have, and focus too much energy pursuing whatever it is that we think is missing.

As I observe the increasingly heightened level of mass discontent in America today, I get the sense that much of the dejection is due to our inability to appreciate what we have. We seem to be the most despondent people on the planet, despite our nation being the wealthiest. We are proof that money doesn’t buy happiness. Economic inequality is certainly a huge problem that needs to be addressed in this country, but I often wonder whether the way we look at it is good for our health and sanity.

I grew up in extreme poverty in Ghana. My illiterate parents had fourteen children so at times there were as many as sixteen people living in our tiny house in the remote village where I was born. I was hungry all the time because there was never enough food to feed all those mouths. One of my most enduring memories of my childhood was having to share one towel with multiple people in the family. Towels were luxury items in my village. After all the heavy-duty chores we did each morning, every one of us needed to take a bath before school. It was always a mad rush to get access to that one towel because we couldn’t be late for school. If we were, we received lashes from our unforgiving teachers. I was constantly under stress.

Thankfully, I have never lost that ability to survive on modest means. And because of that childhood experience, ever since I left the village, I have always been extremely grateful for every little thing I have. I have found that attitude to be profoundly liberating. I generally don’t spend mental energy on things that are not truly essential for my survival. That gives me the emotional capacity I need to deal with the rancorous world we live in today.

I had a Pakistani colleague when I worked at Caterpillar in Indiana a couple of decades ago. At the time, we both faced many of the normal challenges that new immigrants confront in America. During a conversation one day, he asked me how I was able to project such calmness always. In essence, what he was witnessing was a person who had endured so much hardship early in life that he had, over time, become programmed to take most difficult situations in stride.

I was an insanely ambitious child. At one point, I decided that I wanted to grow up to become the president of Ghana. By nature, I always set the bar extremely high for whatever I set out to accomplish. I do the same for people around me—my two children can attest. So I am generally not someone who settles for low-hanging fruits. I never quit when I am pursuing a goal that is important to me. I keep probing until I find ways around whatever obstacles I encounter along the way. But occasionally, time runs out on me, as in when the referee’s whistle blows to signal the end of a game.

Because of this knowledge that sometimes even my best will not be enough, I never beat myself up when I don’t get everything I want. I am always at peace, knowing that I did the very best that I could. And sometimes I realize after the fact that some failures were due to my own mistakes. I learn from them and move on.

We are consistently told that the way to achieve success in life is to work hard, make sacrifices, and play by the rules. Those are things that I strongly believe in. But I have also learned that they tell only half of the story. My best friend in primary and middle school in Ghana followed those rules strictly and still went nowhere. Our destinies are never fully in our own hands.

These days, I am happy whenever I get slightly more than fifty percent of anything. And sometimes I am content with ten or twenty percent, because I know there is always the chance that it could be zero. That was the case for my childhood friend. As I have gone through life, I have learned that success should not always be measured by how much we achieve in terms of wealth and power. It should mostly be gauged by how content we are with whatever we have.

In America and most parts of the rich world, economists tell us that there is some optimal level of taxation that would keep businesses thriving while maximizing public welfare. That is a highly contentious debate however. Corporations and the rich are reluctant to part with more of their wealth because they say they already pay enough taxes. The rest of us vehemently disagree with them. We have become so locked in that tense standoff that we completely forget about the things we have that we should perhaps focus a bit more attention on to enjoy.

This is not meant to say that we should go on with our merry lives and leave the indigent to wallow in their misery. Collectively, we should continue to do what we can to help alleviate their suffering. That includes using our persuasive powers to appeal to the affluent to spread the wealth a bit more. Or perhaps gently shame them if we have to. But we should be careful not to be too accusatory because being rich is not a crime—unless we have reason to believe that someone’s fortune was illegitimately acquired.

I don’t believe that anyone needs to have endured extreme poverty, or been under such constant duress as I experienced in my childhood, to maintain a sense of gratitude. It is a mindset that everyone can develop. We all know that life is highly unpredictable, and that being comfortable today doesn’t guarantee safety tomorrow. That simple reality should be enough for anyone to realize that they need to appreciate what they have in hand.

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