Cryptic headers for blogs are risky. Two documentaries seen this week made me consider the flip sides to what is to me the same question. What are the values by which we live our lives?
The Queen of Versailles, written and directed by Lauren Greenfield chronicles the “American Dream”–upward mobility through the acquisition of money which implies success, usually, but not always through hard work. Jackie and David Siegel come from humble beginnings and find their dream in the billion dollar time-share business, rooted in Las Vegas. They aspire to build the largest house in America–90,000 square feet, based on Versailles, France, transported to Orlando, Florida.
They are likable people; both pretty smart. A busy household with 7 plus kids and 19 servants, not to mention dozens of pets. Their accumulation of things is nothing short of embarrassing. And even when their lives come tumbling down in the midst of the 2008 crash when the evil bankers want their monies, they cannot help themselves.
Director Greenfield frames the movie as a commentary on the rags to riches to rags story and how consumerism (is that yet a psychiatric diagnosis?) has led them astray. I had a hard time buying the premise and certainly did not sympathize as so many in the audience appeared to in the Q&A session (including my kids from whom I got a lot of push back). These people were just plain out of control. Not only lived beyond their means but lived beyond any rationale sense of proportion to what they needed to be happy and productive members of society.
So the question is, how does one (or the society) be happy and productive for the greater good?
Contrast this to a documentary made by former Harvard lecturer, Tal ben Shahar, an expert on being happier. His return to Israel after 14 years abroad studying and pursuing his career in the US, with the most popular course at Harvard, Ben Shahar, notes how much Israel has changed He takes 6 cultural characteristics and shows how Israel, a small country, has made a big difference in the world. These cultural markers are worth listing because they are important for us in the US. Looking beyond politics paints a portrait of Israel that is compelling and based in evidence not often mentioned in the lay press.
What makes such a small country have such a huge positive impact on the world? He cites 6 actualizers.
- The extended family–the roots from which a confident individual emerges.
- Turning adversity into advantage–from desert to exporting fruits and vegetables to the world. The creation of drip irrigation, which I learned is a complex piece of engineering that self cleans and doesn’t obstruct, is now used all over the world to turn desert into arable land.
- Chutzpah–the nerve to never take no for an answer–everything is possible if you believe it to be. Watching paraplegics walk with sophisticated braces created by a quadraplegic in Israel, someone who could never use the device, as a tearful experience.
- Education–above all else, Israelis learn–in the yeshivoth and in the university. Knowing and understanding ever more.
- Taking action–knowing and learning must be brought to life, positive action must be taken.
- Tikkun Olam–repairing the world. Taking responsibility for others. Giving back. The heart program for all, 50% who are Palestinians and many who travel from every continent in the world, is free to all–just one way Israel repairs the world.
We live in an imperfect world. And we can try to make it better in many ways. Ask yourself, “What do I need? What do I want?”
Looking at these two films and the statements they made tells me that we have a lot to learn about the definition of success and what we can and should aspire to. We can consume and build edifices to our vanities, or we can create services that will allow all humankind to live in a better world.