Our Conveniently Lonely Lives

This is part two of an eight-part series published over eight consecutive weeks.

A work colleague from Pakistan once told me there are many well-heeled Pakistani women now who are able to hire one servant for each of their children. They often spend the day going to the spa, shopping, and having lunch with their friends. Meanwhile, their children grow up with their nannies, many of whom are from the Philippines.

Sound familiar? It certainly does to me: I grew up with a Bolivian nanny raising me and my siblings. My marrying a Mexican woman is likely related to my early association of Latin culture with affection. 

Affluent Pakistani Women and Us 

How do living in an African village and affluent Pakistani women fundamentally differ? In African village life, little is convenient—you must painstakingly carve out a role for yourself in a complex social web just to meet your basic material and social needs. While the responsibilities you assume in order to do so are tremendous, so can be the long-term enjoyment enabled by such a rich social network. 

For wealthy Pakistani mothers, and for many of the developing country elite all over the world, it’s the opposite: having money in an otherwise poor country renders life stunningly convenient.  

(My wife, despite living in the United States for over fourteen years now, only recently stopped having trouble pumping gas. In the town in Mexico where she grew up, this skill is generally unnecessary. Due to lower labor costs, gas station attendants are always at the ready and there is no self-service option as is the custom here in the US.) 

Yet, as many mothers who hired nannies to raise their children—some of whose kids are now less close with their parents than to these women, who were there for them through thick and thin—can attest, long-term enjoyment is elusive, again as a consequence of (in this case) a shrinking social network. 

As the women in Pakistan my friend referred to exemplify, convenience and the maximizing of individual preferences are quite alluring. (“Should I go to the spa and get a massage or stay at home feeding my child to mollify his sixth tantrum for the day?”)  

If we have no limit to how much we can focus on these preferences (for instance, let’s say we can hire a nanny for each child because nannies are so inexpensive due to poverty in a neighboring country and a lack of minimum-wage controls), we are likely to opt for convenience. 

Our False Illusion of Independence in the Digital Age 

Most of us have become like these well-off Pakistani women: convenience seekers who experience less long-term enjoyment and fulfillment. Convenience is king and available in unprecedented quantities.  

Without leaving not just our homes, but our Internet-ready-devices-equipped rooms, many of us can satisfy most of our material needs, creating the false illusion of economic and social independence from others. 

The true, unmeasured cost of prioritizing convenience is social, emotional, and psychological development. In the case of the elite Pakistani mothers, it’s not only themselves, but even more so their children who suffer these losses. 

I cannot tell you how happy I am that there was no Amazon delivery, Facebook, or email in that small Kenyan town in which I was a Peace Corps volunteer over twenty-five years ago. I had to fulfill my material needs and seek social and emotional support outside the house, which was trying at times but, in the end, much more meaningful and enduring. 

Do What You Love—With Others 

Pick a situation and ask yourself whether you’re building your social interdependence in your community or increasing your isolation. When you need to buy groceries, are you ordering them online or making a phone-free trip to a local market where you might strike up a conversation with someone?  

If you are feeling anxious and want to exercise, are you working out on a home machine or going to a gym where, over time, you are likely to start seeing the same people and talking with them, especially if you join an exercise class? 

Many people are unwilling to prioritize their long-term development over short-term convenience. They consciously or subconsciously say to themselves, “I’m living in the here and now,” and make their life choices accordingly.  

The problem is that, in the long term, they cease to recognize who they’ve become. They feel disconnected from their values and what they most care about.

Do you remember a time where you compromise your values for convenience?