For a week in Santiago’s winemaking valley we were surrounded by luxury. We slept on Egyptian cotton sheets, sat in embroidered French armchairs while we worked, were invited to dip in the pool and admire the peacocks. But we couldn’t wait to get out of there. The wealthy people who hosted us were toxic.
We met Penny on the Teleferico in La Paz, Bolivia. It was night, and we got on the car at the top of the line, and twisted and turned to look as we descended, in awe of the twinkling lights below.
“Nice hat,” she said in an almost Brooklyn, but distinctly European accent. She was an elegantly dressed elderly woman with two friends, and we started talking. “I love Americans,” she said.
For the next 20 minutes we told her about our travels, and she said, “When you come to Santiago, come stay with me. Here, you like animals?” I nodded emphatically. “I have 200 animals.” She whipped out her phone and scrolled through pictures of peacocks and purebred dogs.
Two months later we emailed her, and she asked what time our flight arrived. Our flight got in at 3 am, we said. We’ll just meet you in the city somewhere at a more civilized hour.
Nonsense, she replied. You’ll pay $100 for a taxi. We will be there when you arrive.
Sure enough, she was, with her husband Quinn. They chatted with us on the way home and gave us the entire guest wing of their house, four rooms and two bathrooms, to be comfortable. The next day we feasted for brunch, as Penny laid her patio table with eggs, toast, cherries, peaches, jam, honey, tomatoes, avocado, olives, yogurt, cranberry juice, and coffee.
Penny showed me around the house. The living room was filled with elegant artwork and statuary, from a Dutch bronze of a couple sledding, to an alabaster bust of a woman’s head. Oil paintings hung on the walls, and peacock feathers were stuffed in crystal vases.
The master bedroom contained a priceless work by a European master of impressionism, the vanity was hand-painted and French, French embroidered brocade curtains hung on the windows.
Quinn’s father was a very, very high official in the Chilean government. So high that by mentioning his office, anyone curious enough would be able to identify Quinn’s real name within 30 minutes on Google. Pictures around the house depicted family members with famous historical figures, including an American president. I wondered, how the hell did we wind up here?
At first we thought their bickering was the fond quibbling of a couple married 46 years. We thought Quinn was joking as he nagged Penny to take her pills. Soon, we realized it was no joke.
As we drove to Santiago for dinner I squirmed as Quinn described housing developments as ghettos. Motioning to one, he said, “That’s where the low-class garbage lives.”
We were starting to understand that Quinn was a little hard of hearing, a little hard-headed, a little overbearing. The next day we had plans to drive to the coast. I chatted with my mother and had to scramble to get ready. I heard him yelling, “Let’s go! Move it!”
We piled into the Mercedes and he tore out of the driveway, narrowly missing a car that was driving by, and he yelled at his wife for making him drive irresponsibly.
We were quiet. Then Penny asked, “Quinn, do you think maybe on the way back, we could go through Algarobbo and see the Pablo Neruda house?”
He exploded. “Are you fucking insane? That is the stupidest shit I have ever heard. You are fucking crazy, Penny. Go to fucking Algarrobo? That is insane.”
I was stunned. He kept yelling, going on and on, calling her an idiot. He yelled about drivers who didn’t drive the way he wanted them to, he cursed as things didn’t go exactly his way, he talked about how worthless the masses, the low class, the poor, the garbage, were.
For a week we spent our evenings with Penny and Quinn, listening to their rants about how terrible the world is, how everyone is a crook. They told us about their friend’s flaws, and how terrible their lives have been. It was relentless and exceedingly uncomfortable.
And Penny and Quinn weren’t interested in our lives, except to express their opinions.
Here we were, surrounded by the most opulent luxury, the most elegant beauty, and these people who had everything were completely, utterly, depressingly miserable.
They yelled at each other, told each other to shut up, told each other how stupid they were, how fed up they were with each other. Basically, they were demonstrating what not to do in a marriage.
I’ve known wealthy people and had opportunities to watch them in close quarters, and some were pretty happy and had very nice relationships, and some were not. But these people were extremely, outwardly, unmistakably, hostile and toxic. We couldn’t wait to get the fuck out of there.
Why didn’t we leave? We were at least an hour from the city without any easy way to pack our bags and say, “Well, thanks for your generosity but we’re going to a hotel, could you open the gate for us?” without creating even more acrimony. And we thought, these people are achingly lonely. Maybe our presence would be good.
So the lesson is that money doesn’t buy happiness.
May I share my understanding of the secret of happiness with you? It’s very simple but for a large ego, it’s difficult to swallow.
Life is impermanent. The body, the name, the objects, the career, the family, the spouse, the achievements, the money – none of it lasts. All notion of who you are is but a passing thought that has disappeared as soon as it appeared. It’s just a fleeting shadow, a figment of your imagination, and then it’s gone until it’s conjured again. See how easily you can be fooled?
How easily we can lose ourselves in our neuroses?
Once you realize life is impermanent, you come to the terrible realization that you will die, and that everything you prop up around yourself, your whole story, is nothing but hot air. Emptiness.
So what is the secret of happiness?
Cut your neuroses with the sword of awareness, and look with courage at emptiness, your true face.
When you realize your impermanence, if you’re lucky an aching compassion for all beings will arise. During our stay with Penny and Quinn I needed some time on the yoga mat to stretch and be alone. Penny trimmed her roses (although her gardener was there). When she finished I watched her back as she retreated to the house, and I was overcome with compassion for her deep loneliness.
Impermanence brings deep appreciation for every moment that you have. And you will start to drink every moment with the passion and delight with which Quinn savored wine and oysters.
You’ll love life, and you’ll love people – all people – and you will treat people kindly, and I promise you that kindness is the ultimate secret to joy.
Since everything is impermanent, the moments that hurt, or inconveniences, things not going the way you want, can be observed as they pass without disturbing your peace. You know they’ll end soon, and they are part of this precious experience just as much as joy, love, comfort, and pleasure are.
I intuit that Quinn’s problem is that he’s built his entire life around being superior to others. He had a major, near-fatal accident and now he’s elderly and his health is failing, and everything he owns, all his money, his name, everything he thought makes him superior – he’s going to lose it all.
That kind of realization will either make someone develop true compassion and love, or make the ego even more desperate to deny the reality of its impermanence – its inevitable demise – by trying to knock down everyone and assert superiority. This is what the Buddhists call ignorance.
Money is a wonderful resource that can be used for good or ill. I feel sorry for Penny and Quinn. Their money closed the world to them. They won’t talk to just anybody, they won’t go to certain places; Quinn doesn’t even walk, because he was raised in an era where walking was what poor people did. Their wealth has crippled them, and it doesn’t have to be that way.
Everyone wants to enjoy pleasure, and no one wants to feel pain. No matter what situation life bears us into, we will all die. We will all lose everything. And at that moment, who will miss us?
Who will care?
What will they say about you when you are dying?
I want people to say, that woman was one of the kindest and happiest people I’ve ever met.
Because being kind has made me so happy.