The Loneliness of Convenience
This is part one of an eight-part series published over eight consecutive weeks.
The price of anything is the
amount of life you exchange for it.
—Henry David Thoreau
When I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya about thirty years ago, I lived in a small town of a few thousand people about a three-hour bus ride inland from Mombasa. I knew most of the residents of Wundanyi by name or at least by sight.
My gregariousness was not entirely by choice. To develop a relatively functional life in a small town like Wundanyi back then, you had to know everyone.
Interdependence Begins Economic and Ends Social
There was a central marketplace I frequented after working all day with the local schools, where I knew by name the “mamas” selling vegetables. We traded stories over tomatoes, hand-ground maize flour, and mangoes.
They sustained me with fresh vegetables of many varieties. The selection wasn’t democratic like at Whole Foods Market: the mamas decided what to offer you based on how much they liked you.
I knew the bakers well, and they went out of their way to bake special bread without sugar for me. I also spent many an afternoon talking with the Indian shopkeeper who brought me imported foodstuffs such as baking powder from Mombasa and Nairobi. And so on.
Without the friendliness and social interaction, many core elements of village life would not have been possible. For example, the factory-made maize flour was not nearly as healthy or delicious as the locally produced variety.
To acquire the latter, it was necessary to know someone in the local women’s cooperative that operated the “posho mill” (where maize stalks were ground into flour). Economic interdependence produced social interdependence.
Go Outside and Interact
Today, I sometimes feel guilty and tinged with shame as I drive past (what’s left of) the mom-and-pop bookstores and instead order a book on Amazon. As our physical marketplace continues to dissipate, the jury is out as to how we will create the social interdependence necessary to access the socioemotional support we all need, especially when something goes counter to our life goals (e.g., an intimate partner leaves, a job is lost, a family member passes away).
When we experience such challenging life moments, it becomes very salient to us that we need each other. Yet we find ourselves woefully lonely and deficient in social skills because we didn’t take the time to build meaningful connections with others when times were better.
Moments such as the large snowstorms I used to experience growing up in Washington, DC: spending long days inside our homes unable to access the usual amenities, we and our neighbors met outside in the snow and joined together to commiserate and help each other.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know I would not have experienced the same growth as a human being without getting to know so many people in Wundanyi, which led to my feeling a sense of belonging and inner harmony with the community around me.
Stepping outside each day to interact with people was one of the drivers of my integration into the community. It led me to many social, emotional, and psychological benefits that enabled me to have some of the most indelible experiences of my life—experiences that irrevocably transformed who I am.
In most Western countries today, you don’t have to go out and interact with others in real time to meet most of your material needs. As a result, many of us have become Screened In.
What strategies do you put into place in your daily life to express your interdependence with your family, friends and the people around you in your community? How do you forge the social connections each day that are the single largest contributor to your long-term happiness?
Next week, let’s go deeper into how we balance our needs for both convenience and connection.