My friend, are you happy?

Updated: Mar 3, 2020

Three prints playing on themes of Ernest Hemingway, Donald Trump, and Che Guevara
Artwork in a fancy restaurant in Havana

I’m inflight to Newark, after spending six days in Havana, Cuba. Traveling to faraway lands where people speak languages other than my own and have forged ways of doing things, from the banal to the profound so differently than my way, has been one of the greatest privileges in my life. It is always humbling, feeds my insatiable curiosity about the world, and challenges my assumptions about how the world works, what is important in life, and what constitutes a good life. Havana did not disappoint.

My first mind-blowing experience of international travel was a thirty day trip to India back in 1994. I can remember distinctly, standing on the edge of a slum, I’m talking about cardboard boxes and corrugated aluminum homes, and open sewage literally, for as far as I could see. My expectation was that this place must be a living hell, full of nothing but misery, I had to muster courage just to try to take it in. And then, as the trees began to emerge from the forest, I was able to see people going about their lives. They were cooking, carrying goods, washing clothes, and most impressively to me, smiling, and even laughing, in each other’s company. Particularly the children. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs collapsed before my eyes. Or did it? My commitment to understanding the nature of human happiness was, similarly, collapsed and inspired in a mix of confusion and wonder. It still is.

Traveling to Havana in the midst of a chaotic transformation of the American political tradition provided a great opportunity to once again step out of my cultural box and engage the world as an outsider, as an innocent. Not speaking more than a few words of Spanish heightened the experience in so many ways.

The critical catalyst for thinking about happiness while in Havana was, of course, the context of Communism. I arrived knowing very little Cuban history and relatively little of communism, yet keenly aware that most of what I had been told or had read was deeply steeped in American capitalist paranoia. Although I could have found plenty of English speaking natives to inform me of their perspectives, my traveling companion and I opted to quietly observe first hand the day to day rhythm of life in the outer edges of the city. Most of our time was spent meandering through residential neighborhoods taking in the architecture, the variety of wealth, patterns of transportation, and opportunities for food. All the while pondering the question of whether we thought these people were happy, which lead to reexamining what happiness means, to whether or not Americans are happy, to the role of government in supporting happiness, and back to the beginning again.

Needless to say, none of these questions were answered. To be sure, I got a sense of life in Havana. There is a strange mixture of dilapidated buildings commingling with beautiful old homes. There was very little litter (presumably because there is very little to buy, particularly very few disposable plastic containers). I saw virtually no signs of homelessness or desperation (although there was some of this in the heart of the city, it was far less prevalent than even in my small town in Vermont). A sense of safety was pervasive, walking at night, wondering through the streets of unknown territory, random encounters with strangers were all peaceful. Perhaps the best single descriptor I could use was, just that, peaceful, there was a distinct lack of chaos and stress in the streets. There were long, very long, lines at gas stations, banks and other mysterious government buildings. There were many homes, that may have been ‘safe’, but surely were in dire straights and crammed in together. Yet, none of these observations, even taken in total are very helpful in answering the questions raised above. Nor could any amount of additional information.

These questions are valuable for their rhetorical nature. I feel that this trip was time supremely well spent precisely because it stimulated so much wonder and self-reflection. Not surprisingly, given the context of Communism, It has given me particular insight into what I believe is the role of government in peoples lives - but then, the more you know the more you realize how little you know. Although I spend considerable time working on this task in my everyday life, there is nothing quite like jumping out of my cultural box to discover entirely new ways of pursuing a meaningful life.

Gracias Havana.

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