The first road sign I saw in Bhutan read: Start early/Drive slowly/Arrive safely. I knew instantly this place and this trip was going to be different. Bhutan is a country so small -- fewer than 1 million people -- that it is very easy to miss. But this little country tucked between China and India is having more and more impact on the rest of the world every day, writes Joan Chittister.
There's something about being confronted by the obvious in the midst of the unquestionable, however, that makes a person rethink all of life in the process. I know that's true because it just happened to me. In Bhutan I saw what obviously could be start to eclipse what is now unquestionable in society as we know it.
What has become obvious and unquestionable in a world of superpowers and global systems is that small nations have little weight to add to the scales of more modern and powerful nations. And yet what is astounding is the fact that one of the smallest countries on the planet - the tiny monarchical democracy of Bhutan - may very well be developing a great deal of international influence.
In June, the Global Peace Initiative of Women convened a body of religious leaders and professional scholars to study a recent declaration of the king and government of Bhutan. In Bhutan, the Parliament has declared, the GNP -- the Gross National Product by which the wealth of a nation is measured -- has been abandoned. In its place, the government has defined the achievement of Gross National Happiness as their new standard of success. They have, in other words, chosen a spiritual rather an economic metric of achievement.
Our task was to consider the practicality of such an ideal as well as its message to the rest of society. As one social absolute after another -- money, power, social status and productivity -- came under scrutiny, I asked myself what I was seeing. To be truthful, it was a bit of the old story of Shangri-La, from James Hilton's 1933 novel about a hidden kingdom of peace and happiness, mixed with a touch of the 1959 film The Mouse that Roared, the story of a small kingdom that, by accident, manages to upset the entire geopolitical order.