I was chatting with a young barista in a newly opened coffee shop in San Francisco's Mission District last week. She was lamenting the lack of community and connection in her life. In her opinion, this was in part because these days what people do for a living often has no relationship to their friends and communities.
'It's the difference,' she explained, 'between meeting someone for the first time and having her tell you she's a graphic designer at some anonymous downtown studio or meeting someone and having her tell you she bakes the bread at your corner bakery.'
Here's what I think she was getting at: in the pursuit of unlimited choice and convenience, we have, on a certain level, made ourselves irrelevant to each other.
Take the corner bakery example. Once upon a long-ago time, the baker needed you for her livelihood and you need her for your sustenance. It was a pretty direct relationship--if she got sick or closed the bakery, you were out of luck. If you stopped buying her bread, she was out of business. Your level of intimacy was several degrees closer than the relationship between you and the person who bakes your grocery store bread today.
And even further along the continuum was the time before money when we traded shoes for chickens and sacks of wheat for a mattress. There was no abstraction between us and our needs, no embossed coin representing some anonymous stack of gold we've never even seen. Just a few apples for some cheese, or a few days work in the fields for a sack of salt. And in those transactions, we understood each other in a way that just isn't replicated in most Safeway/Wal-Mart experiences.
Asking if we better or worse off with our current system isn't quite the point. Until we deeply understand the price of our so-called independence, we simply can't weigh-in on the situation with any authority. Maybe our more autonomous modern lives are worth it, maybe it's exactly what we want. After all, connection and community are so much effort and bother: you're always having to consider another's needs along with your own. Sometimes instead of your own.
But I haven't yet met a person who is both alienated and happy. Seems to me that as a species we have a real need for connection and community. We need the burden of caring for each other, the messy business of being in relationship, in order to find purpose and happiness.
It's no coincidence that were experiencing a tremendous increase in the number of farmer's markets, small neighborhood bakeries, artisan cheese makers and the like right now. We've finally discovered that having a direct connection to our food, or to the source of our food, is a more pleasant and humane way to live. And that not doing so can be horrifying and even dangerous--witness factory farming, poisoned food chains and epidemic obesity.
But where do you weigh-in? Do you prefer to swap a little connection and community for a more easily managed anonymity? Or are you the first in line when your local baker opens her doors, personal mug clutched in one hand and a bunch of your garden roses for the counter in the other? Have you ever traded your shoes for chickens?