I’ve visited almost 20 countries in the last three months, talking with countless people about what it means to be a “Citizen of the World” and how we can find peace within us and share it with those around us. I’ve met with Zulu rangers, triathletes, musicians, artists, pilots, dancers, government officials, dog sled mushers, entrepreneurs, environmentalists, scientists and many more.
I even met a monk who locked himself away in a cave deep inside the Gheralta Mountains for 70 years for the purpose of evolving so he could move along to the next realm in peace.
Surprisingly, three months into this six-month pole-to-pole circumnavigation, the happiest people I’ve observed so far are those I met in northern Ethiopia’s rural environment. Removed from all the culture, technology, and consumer activity that we enjoy in our first-world life, it was hard to believe what I was experiencing. To give you an idea of how removed they are from a metropolitan area, it was not an easy place to get to. I flew Citizen of the World to Addis Ababa, caught a regional airline to the Tigray region and from there took a two-hour car ride into the remote northern Gheralta Mountains. It was a full day of travel far away from what I would call “civilization.” I felt transported back into another time.
What caught my eye as I traveled into northern Ethiopia was that people were happy and smiling. Some I would even describe as joyful. Most memorable was seeing three little boys, all about the same size, looking to be about six or seven, lined up next to each other on the side of the road, with big smiles on their sweet faces and their thumbs out pretending to hitch a ride. They had their routine down and not a cell phone to be seen on any of them.
Over the next few days I came to learn that these boys, their families and their community had very few material possessions. Their houses and their land were well manicured. It was obvious they took pride in their ownership. But interestingly, their houses had no furniture—at least, the way I think of furniture. They slept on straw mats on the dirt floor. They ate sitting on the floor. If the weather was bad, they would bring their animals inside to protect them from the weather or more often, from hyenas prowling for an easy target.
The land around them was beautiful with the Gheralta Mountains singing out grandeur, God and nature. The mountains were so high they reached up and touched the sky. It was the sort of beauty that made you want to stop and watch a sunset and get up early, even when you were dead tired, to watch the sun rise. The people were nourished by the land. The river was a direct source of drinking water. You could see young boys herding their goats, cows, and donkeys that fed on vegetation that grew naturally. There were no delivery trucks bringing in bags of feed or bottled water. One boy sitting in a tree nearby called out, “These are my goats! I take care of them and then I go to school in the afternoon.” His smile was so big and his delight and pride in his responsibility were hard to miss.
Children were playing and singing and waving in small groups everywhere we passed. They weren’t worried about what happened in the past or what was going to happen in the future; they were rock solid present in the moment.
I could see these people were living in their joy, not searching for happiness. In the “civilized world,” many of us equate the pursuit of happiness with new possessions: New clothes, a new car, a new job, a new house, etc. After a short time, these things don’t make us happy anymore and we need to replace them with newer things. Happiness is fleeting. Joy is with us from the day we are born but it’s difficult to access because we build walls and create distractions that prevent us from feeling this joy.
When I arrived at Korkor Lodge, where we stayed for a week while filming our documentary, I sat with the owner, Luigi, and talked with him about the area. I felt like I was in the presence of a very wise old soul. He said, “Robert, maybe these people are onto something. They may be more evolved than us. Have our modern lives really made us happier or just created more problems for us?”
“I’m not sure they have made us happier,” I said.
My mind wandered back to my life before I took off on this mission of “One Planet, One People, One Plane: Oneness for Humanity.” All our responsibilities. All our things. All the products we consume. All the silly things we do to be better than the next person. I thought about how important our clothes, cameras, cars, dishes, cell phones, sunglasses, shoes, and other items. are to us and wondered, “Why?”
At that point, I brought myself back to the moment. I could see I was beginning to go down the rabbit hole and I said to Luigi, “We must have something that is equally as valuable as the simple joys of these ‘evolved’ people—at least modern medicine is something we can be proud of. What about our ability to use radiation and lasers on precise points on our bodies to prevent “dis-ease,” improve our vision, perform surgery, etc.? Surely that counts!”
Luigi had an answer to this as well. “The locals live to be very old and when they get sick, they go and drink water from the well.”
When he said that, I couldn’t help but wonder if all the issues that modern medicine fixed were the ones that we created from our lifestyles filled with stress, chemicals, ambition, worry, and plastic everything? I clearly had some deeper thinking to do about what it means to be a “Citizen in the World” for the world.
During a two-hour walk through the country I was most impressed by a little girl we met who carved emblems into small stones. In addition to the stones, she showed us a piece of paper with her original design work for creating the artwork. I thought it might be a school project until I realized she was setting up shop when she saw us coming—a budding entrepreneur for sure.
We continued our stroll and entered a 2,000-year-old church about a quarter mile away. When we exited the sacred building, the little girl had relocated to another spot we would pass. She was all smiles when we met her eyes a second time. As a gesture of good will, my friend Susan gave her some local currency. The little girl reached down into her basket and gave Susan the biggest stone carving she had made. Susan asked if she could have one more for a friend. The little girl smiled joyfully and handed her the next biggest stone. Susan ended our time with the little girl by telling her how beautiful she was and how wonderful her stones were. I could feel their souls bonding as they both smiled ear to ear at each other. We later learned that the amount of money Susan gave this girl was more than the girl’s father made in a week.
I felt the little girl knew more about business than most of the people I went to business school with … and maybe even more about the “school of life” that was currently in session for me. She and Susan showed me there are no boundaries when generosity, gratitude and appreciation are present.
After a few days at the Korkor Lodge I couldn’t help but think that we in first-world countries have totally missed this thing called joy as we live our very efficient twenty-first century lives. Joy is available to all of us just as it was for the little girl with her stones, the little boy with his goats, as well as the three boys pretending to hitch a ride. We don’t need to wait to be happy until we get that promotion. We don’t need to wait until we have that dream house or car. We don’t have to wait until we lose those 10 extra pounds to decide that we are whole, complete, and a “success.”
Maybe we are enough just as we are. Maybe we don’t have to keep postponing our joy. Maybe interactions with these earthbound angels are meant to teach us that we already have what we need to be happy. Maybe slowing down and taking the time to notice— with gratitude and appreciation—what is already available to us will help us remove these self-created limitations so we can live a fully joyful life.