Does wealth truly makes us healthier and happier?
In the 2006 movie, The Pursuit of Happyness, homeless, unemployed, single parent Chris Gardner struggles to find a home and financial security for his son. The movie includes numerous heart-rending scenes of Gardner (played by Will Smith) lining up with his son at homeless shelters while trying to hold down an unpaid internship at a Wall Street investment company. He sees success at that internship as his last chance to pull his little family out of poverty.
The movie is based on the memoirs of the real Chris Gardner, who did make it through that difficult period with his son and became a successful Wall Street investment banker and philanthropist. At the time of the movie’s release, Gardner and his son (now an adult) were interviewed by Oprah Winfrey. At one point she asked Gardener’s son whether he remembered being homeless, and what it was like. Christopher Jr. answered – in essence – that he only remembers how wonderful and safe it always felt to be with his dad.
So what was it was that his dad was doing that made his son feel safe, even in extreme circumstances? What I saw was that Gardner was expressing a true sense of fatherhood – good parenting – that has its source not in a financial position, but in a divine sense of love. He consistently embodied qualities such as protectiveness, steadfastness, strength, and tenderness.
This sense of protection and safety is something many of us yearn to feel, given the negative predictions we often see in the media about the state of the economy. Feeling safe and well cared for, including having sufficient income to live in a decent home with good food, are all important to our health. Public health workers have, over the last decade, begun to recognize the links between health and socio-economic status. Unfortunately, though, health is increasingly being equated with wealth.
Yet, that doesn’t have to be true.
I identify with Chris Gardner’s. In many ways it could have been about my mum and me. My mum became a single parent when I was a baby, and we lived on a very limited income, often moving from one tiny basement apartment to another. Yet, what I remember most clearly, was, that like Gardner’s son, I just felt happy and safe around my mum. My memories of those times are full of laughter, and of the wonderful, enriching things we did together – even when we knew that our financial situation was dire.
Many of the mothering qualities that I experienced with my mother were similar to the fathering attributes Chris Gardner expressed, such as protectiveness and tenderness, along with patience, humour, self-sacrifice and resilience. It’s not the wealth we have in our bank account that matters so much as the richness of love we have in our hearts.
My mum told me that what consistently lifted her out of despair about her economic circumstances, was that she felt divinely loved. She had a deep spiritual connection with God, whom she saw and felt as Love. She saw and felt that divine presence as both mother and father, and spoke about it with me frequently. Her practice of daily communion with God freed her from feeling that she was a helpless victim of poverty. She also taught me to turn to God for assurance.
I never felt that the state of our finances dictated that we had to be sick or unhappy. In fact they could not dictate anything to us. Steadily and surely we emerged from poverty with our health and happiness intact. The key was that sense of being divinely parented – both of us.
In a thoughtful scene from the movie – a moment when things were looking hopeless, Chris Gardner’s son says to his dad, “You are a good papa.” That defining moment about fatherhood encapsulates to me what is so important: that every member of society deserves to feel so divinely loved and cared for that nothing can take away their health or happiness.