Dona Marta, Harvard inner city study, upward mobility, choice, health, personal responsibility

Purposeful Contentment

Purposeful Contentment

© 2006 Wellness Clubs of

As I write this I am on a musical tour of Brazil with the Southern Nazarene University School of Music. Traveling and performing with SNU is always an exciting and rewarding experience. The venues in which we play are as varied as the people and cultures we visit. They range from civic auditoriums to street markets, from churches to city parks and town squares. An afternoon concert in the plaza of Dona Marta was particularly thought provoking.

Dona Marta, snaking its way up the hills between Sugar Loaf and the Corcovado, is a Rio de Janeiro slum. Dona Marta is not unlike the poorer areas of other major cities. Yes, it is occupied by alcoholics and drug lords, but it is also home to school children, elderly with few assets, and many who work for subsistence wages. The homes have few amenities, but satellite dishes dot the rooftops providing a link to the outside world and an escape from the harsh realities of life.

Dona Marta reminded me in many ways of the Franklin-Chicago neighborhood of Minneapolis, where Rosalie and I lived while I was finishing college and medical school. As in Dona Marta, crime was rampant, public drunkenness commonplace, and poverty a way of life. Time magazine referred to it as, “the only urban Indian ghetto in the United States.” Low rents and its proximity to the University of Minnesota made Franklin-Chicago home to a number of students as well.

A visit to the computer school in Dona Marta drove this similarity home. There people have the opportunity to gain skills necessary to break to grasp of poverty upon their lives.

In any depressed area one will find individuals who are “transients” rather than permanent residents. I have asked many times why it is that some people live their entire lives in such settings while others choose to move on. I know that the answer does not lie in the realm contentment. The location of our home has never determined whether or not Rosalie and I were happy. I believe I understand what the Apostle Paul meant when he wrote, “I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content.”

The answer is that contentment is not the same as complacency. Paul was always content, but he was never complacent. Poverty is determined not by the size of one’s income but by one’s state of mind. It is possibly to be temporarily out of money, as one of my friends so eloquently put it, without dwelling in poverty.

What distinguishes the person who is temporarily out of money from the one who is mired in poverty is the presence of purpose in life. Paul’s external circumstances were nothing to him. His mission was everything. He was willing to do whatever was necessary to propagate his message.

Poverty and complacency are bedfellows. In the words of Solomon, “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep—So shall your poverty come on you like a prowler, and your need like an armed man.” Complacency, the attitude that everything is satisfactory, is the first step a downward spiral ending in a sense of resignation. At that stage the attitude is, “There is nothing I can do that will make any difference, so why bother?”

Resignation in the area of financial poverty is likely to translate into resignation in the case of physical poverty as well. Researchers in Boston, Massachusetts, recently released the results of a study begun in 1940. Two groups of men, one who were sophomores at Harvard University and another who were living in the inner city, were enrolled. After 60 years it is apparent that those who exercise control over their behavior remain happy and healthy while those who do not become sad and sick.

The men from the inner city aged at a rate of 10 years faster than the men from Harvard with one exception. Those from the inner city who went on to graduate from college, who chose to rise above the circumstances of their youth, were found to be comparable to the Harvard men in rate of aging and long-term health.

It is important to engage in a program of continual self-improvement. Life is not a static process; we are either improving we are in a state of decline. When we become complacent about our health, when we believe that things are just fine and that we need not be concerned about actual dangers or deficiencies, disease is waiting in the wings.

The person who has been complacent about health often faces disease with an attitude of resignation. “I’m getting old,” they will complain. “There’s nothing I can do about it. It happens to all the women in my family.” Changes in diet, habits or activities are rejected and nutritional supplements dismissed with the words, “Those things never work!”

The Harvard/inner city study says that this is not the case. Sickness and sadness are not inevitable traveling companions as we age. The results demonstrate that our family history has little predictive value once we reach the age of fifty. It is attitude; it is a desire and a commitment to control rather than be controlled by circumstances that determines whether we will be happy and well or sad and sick. I prefer happy and well.

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