Lessons from Slumdog

by James O’Reilly

I went to see Slumdog Millionaire the other night with a friend who does rural development work in Central America, and we were both reminded of the enormous gap between the poor and Those of Us Who Really Don’t Suffer Much But Complain a Lot. It’s been over twenty years since I was in Mumbai (then Bombay), but India is engraved in the memory rather easily, and the images of the slums caused me to reflect again on our culture in the West, and our own forms of poverty: poverty of imagination, poverty of friendship, poverty of family, poverty of compassion, poverty of life in the streets. I am not saying we’re not actually rich in all these things, I am saying that many of us, myself included, are not functionally appreciative that it is these things that constitute real riches. That is to say, our appreciation is occasional, the way we might admire a sunset or a puppy. It is not a deep and abiding way of life. We spend our time chasing illusions of success, wealth, fame, and ignore the wealth that surrounds us and lies within. A culture defined by Miss Piggy—“more is never enough”—encourages a darkness of spirit that makes us cling to the phony, and want the phony more than anything else.

I know it’s a tired sermon, you’ve heard it before, maybe given it yourself. And I don’t want to deny the fact that the great economic meltdown that began in 2008 has caused anguish and suffering, with more coming over the horizon. It is in times like these, however, that we can change our lives for the better. Danger and crisis have a way of making us understand instinctively what matters each moment, and what doesn’t.

One of the things that always strikes me when reading travel stories is how often the journey strips away illusions of self; a new place, a new culture, chance encounters with strangers—they so often charge the traveler with wonder and inspiration and the courage to live better. The quotidian, rejected at home as tedious and confining, is seen from afar as replete with possibility. Thus one of the best remedies I propose for “Economic Black Swan Flu” is travel—travel that doesn’t have to be exotic or expensive—it can be to places nearby about which you’ve said “maybe later” to the idea of exploring. But travel nonetheless. “Maybe later” can become “maybe this weekend,” and “maybe this weekend” can turn into “today” and an experience with as many aspects as a foreign one. Or, in the vivid light of crisis, it might be that you do indeed decide to change course dramatically, and take that trip to a faraway place that has called you your whole life. Perhaps it is even to Mumbai, or somewhere like it.

So back to Slumdog. Without giving away the movie, one of the things I enjoyed most about it was the towering and complex web of stories and memories that is the boy’s life. We are all like this boy, and if a bad economy is our cruel interlocutor to his police captor, let it serve us in driving the mental and emotional gangsters from our spiritual house. Let us leave our slums, interrogate our demons, and seek to become whole first, and thereby rich—not the other way around.