The Pursuit of Happiness

Every Night & every Morn
Some to Misery are Born
Every Morn and every Night
Some are Born to sweet delight
Some are Born to sweet delight
Some are Born to Endless Night   

~ William Blake, c. 1803

Adele Bloch-Bauer was the youngest daughter of a wealthy Jewish banker, born in 1880 in Vienna.  She was a socialite in Viennese aristocracy early last century.  Gustav Klimt was commissioned by her husband to paint her portrait, completing  the work of oil, silver and gold leaf on canvas in 1907.  Adele died of meningitis in 1925.  Members of her family escaped certain death via people smugglers shortly after Germany annexed Austria in 1938. Others were sent to concentration camps, killed or committed suicide.   The family home was looted by the Nazis and their small Klimt collection ended up in Vienna’s Belvedere Gallery.  The gold-flecked portrait Adele Bloch-Bauer I was renamed The Lady in Gold in order to seem Aryan.  It drew crowds over many decades and was dubbed Austria’s Mona Lisa.  The story of Adele’s family and the way their art works finally returned to them is beautifully told in the 2015 film Woman in Gold.  It illustrates three points relevant in today’s climate of fear-mongering: 1.  Genuine asylum seekers do not need to be impoverished; they can in fact be affluent; 2.  Persecution involves humiliation and dehumanisation of the target population; 3.  Being born into “sweet delight” does not mean you will never know “endless night” – a very good reason for those of us living well, to always find compassion for the circumstances of others.

There is a mansion on Fifth Avenue at East 86th Street, across the road from Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I once had dinner with friends.  It is now the Neue Galerie, a boutique showcase of German and Austrian art owned by the son of Estee Lauder.  That, of course, is how I got to eat there, in the gallery restaurant, on a cold December night in 2010.  The Neue Galerie purchased The Lady in Gold from Adele’s niece in 2006 for US$135 million.  Perhaps I saw it when I was there?  I don’t actually remember!

Last week I worked at a remote indigenous community 300km out of Alice Springs.  One evening in the dusty demountable that was home for four nights, I watched and loved Woman in Gold via iTunes.  I first saw it advertised on a billboard outside a cinema in London’s Haymarket about a year ago, an entirely different world from the place I finally got to enjoy the film.  As I ordered my meal at the Neue Galerie in New York that night, I felt that I was a fairly ordinary citizen of the world, who sometimes gets to have nice holidays in places where I can visualise how life might be had I been born to good fortune.  The fact I was ever there in the first place, I now know, is an example of my extreme good fortune.  Every single day now, I feel grateful beyond words, for the fact that I was “born to sweet delight”.  I am also constantly startled at just how long it took me to recognise this fact and eternally grateful to both Timor Leste and Cambodia for their powerful lessons.  Sharing what I can of my good fortune, with those who do not experience our world as the place of comforts and freedoms that it is for me, has become my pursuit in life.  Inspiration also comes from the good others, even those who can offer very little, do in the world.

Every week I hear from various sources in Cambodia.  Some of the stories they tell are worth sharing here, to show that the Third World is not a place of only doom and gloom, but also of human strength, survival, generosity and compassion.

Many places in Cambodia are in drought…the wells are empty, the ponds have dried up and many families can’t afford water. However walking out of the village in Battambang we came across this: Free water from one family for anyone who need a drink. Kindness at its best.

Free Water Cambodia
Story and photograph courtesy of Global Village Housing, who build homes for impoverished Cambodians

The 15 children at Phter Koma Kampong Cham continue to work hard in school.  Last year there were concerns about the school grades of most of them.  Incredibly, almost all of them have since climbed from bottom of the class to near the top of the class, thanks to exhaustive work of both our staff and our children.  This is an incredible triumph for children who have experienced the loss and hardship that these children have.  I am honoured to be involved with such a great group of kids.

SN (one of the older kids) teaches two extra classes to the younger kids every evening. We really appreciate her assistance.

Photo and story courtesy of Phter Koma Kampong Cham, home for children living with and orphaned by HIV
Photo and story courtesy of Phter Koma Kampong Cham, home for children living with and orphaned by HIV

This small community call themselves the ghost community because most of them earn a little money preparing the dead for the Pagoda.

Photo and story courtesy of Bernadette Vincent, Phnom Penh
Photo and story courtesy of a volunteer working with River Kids

Riverkids is a Lifeboat to families and children in Cambodia who are really, really hard to help, families that no other NGOs could help. Traffickers look for the worst families because their children are the easiest to prey on.  We look for families that are complex and incredibly difficult, families hurting their children or planning to sell them, families with generations of abuse. We listen to them, we help them to recover and we protect their children.

To celebrate International Family Day we’re telling the story of Sophal, family man extraordinaire. After years of scavenging he worked so hard to change his life and he now offers a loving home not just to his own children but to three others and an elderly lady.

CCF Sophal
Photograph and story courtesy of Cambodian Children’s Fund

“There’s this kid right. He’s been abandoned. Three times. Lived with monks. Knows how to catch and cook frogs to survive. I won’t go into detail about his history of abuse. This little jungle boy, Mogli I call him, would walk into my office on random days and announce that he had a gift. He would then proceed to release live butterflies from his palms. Another day his gift was a live baby fish, which he plopped right into the water in the vase. After these little gift ceremonies he’d just walk out the door with a full gangster swagger, cause let’s be honest, we all wish we were that cool. Here’s a little flower artwork I caught Mogli making one day. May we all be a bit more Mogli everyday, right?”

Photo and story courtesy of Sunrise Cambodia, working on the ground in Cambodia to give much-needed help to at-risk kids, struggling families and poor communities in some of the most poverty-stricken provinces of Cambodia
Photo and story courtesy of Sunrise Cambodia, working on the ground in Cambodia to give much-needed help to at-risk kids, struggling families and poor communities in some of the most poverty-stricken provinces of Cambodia

As these stories show, so many people living in hardship seem to know that the way to their own progress and happiness, lies in focussing on what good they can do in the world.  Sometimes it appears that the more distant we become from distress and hardship, the more at risk we are of becoming self-absorbed and unhappy.  If you are in pursuit of happiness, look beyond yourself.

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