Its a Wonder-full Life….in Bhutan

Almost exactly a year ago, I had the good fortune of being on the faculty of an innovative social change  program, commissioned by an International NGO  (SNV) based in The Hague.  During one of my long and somewhat lonely business trips through Asia I was invited to a small birthday party in downtown Thimpu, (population 98,676), the “New York” of Bhutan . It was probably the most unusual pre-Christmas party I have ever attended.

The guests were a wonderfully diverse group, including a German-English hotel manager (the host); a Dutch/French couple who run an animal hospital for the many sick and injured dogs living on the margins of Bhutanese society; a couple of middle-aged New Zealanders doing volunteer work with schools, a German IT engineer doing volunteer work while his Austrian wife manages UNDP projects, and others from Poland, Sweden, and Czech Republic all living in this tiny obscure country, the size of Switzerland. We ate cake, swapped stories, sang old songs and talked about various Christmas holiday plans and traditions, all of them basically irrelevant in this Bhuddist country.  The host explained that one of his fondest traditions was to watch “It’s a Wonderful Life”, and that he would love to watch it with us.  No one but he and I had ever seen or heard of it.  So we re-arranged the furniture, bundled ourselves in blankets (no central heating in Bhutan), and he beamed it up onto a bare wall.

There is nothing more enlightening than watching something we think of as a holiday classic, in a remote place, with people who have never seen it.  It didn’t take long for the audience to draw the poingnant parallels between the current global economic crisis and the story of the Bailey Building and Loan, its larger purpose, and the struggles that George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart) has with the avaricious money magnate, Mr. Potter.

In 2008 Bhutan officially established a parliamentary democracy and held its first elections.  There was 78% voter turnout, despite widely-held support for the King and his leadership and commitment to a country that carefully evaluates its Gross National Happiness as compared to GNP.  There are many challenges to be addressed in the transition, and the government is struggling to establish a robust market economy, while providing decent education and health care to its widely-flung and sparse population. How to help people living at subsistence levels in remote mountain valleys get access to the resources needed to improve their lives and raise their life expectancy is an important concern for all, and the pre-occupation of a small and dedicated community of people working for NGO’s and donor organizations there.  These ex-pat “angels”  fully understand how many Bhutanese have hopes and dreams like George’s, and the frustration and self-sacrifice that is endured in order to make larger dreams come to life.

But as I left the party and walked out into the chill mountain air, I wondered what our Bhutanese friends would draw from that movie.  75% of the population is Buddhist, and the hillsides have many tall poles covered with prayer flags, simple devices that, coupled with the natural energy of the wind, quietly harmonize the environment, impartially increasing happiness and good fortune among all living beings.  The blessings from them are further spread by the water in the rushing river far below, the river that brings scarce and sacred water to India some hundreds of miles further South.  The Bhutanese I have met  might have questioned how the discouragement that George suffers got so extreme.

Family and community support is vital to survival in Bhutan.   I would like to think the Bhutanese would support determined entrepreneurs like George in his struggles against the values of market economics, reminding him of his blessings long before he reaches desperation, and thoughts of suicide. There is an appreciation for those who work at changing dominant institutions, and serving their community.

I wonder how Frank Capra’s vision could now be seen in my own country.  Living in a place where prayer flags are rarely seen, it seems like a good thing that at least an old movie can serve to remind us of the happiness and good fortune that is available to each of us and that we should try to increase for all.

What a gift to be offered new perspectives on this holiday story.  The citizens of tiny mountainous Bhutan are still at the threshold of great changes, and challenges with democracy.  I hope they have the courage to embrace the challenges that are coming and the grace to continue to embrace the values that keep their society whole. Sometimes it truly is a “wonder-full” life.

And from the story of another remote mountain-dweller

“The Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling, how could it be so?  It came without ribbons.  It came without tags.  It came without packages, boxes or bags.  And he puzzled and puzzled ’till his puzzler was sore.  Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before.  What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store.  What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more? “ -Dr. Seuss


Bhutan