Life in Switzerland is comfortable. Maybe too comfortable. With my brother currently based in Cambodia, I’m reminded of the different world that exists outside of Switzerland (and Europe in general) by his photos and Snapchat stories. Sometimes I miss the grit, hustle, bustle and noisiness of certain places, often called “developing countries.” The honking of minibus taxis while a shepherd tries to herd his sheep across a busy road…thick, grey exhaust fumes filling the air…an obstacle course of hawkers lined up on the sidewalks selling fruit…beggars…people shouting. It’s a special ecosystem.
Just yesterday, I was waiting on a train platform in Zürich when two men started shouting at each other through the silent, waiting crowd of people hunched over their smartphones. Then they started pushing each other. I saw many looks of terror and shock. I considered that if this had happened in other places, it would have been drowned out by all of the other happenings.
It’s been two years since I last visited one of these special countries (Ethiopia in 2015). Maybe things have changed, but I’ve always felt they have something that we lack, and I don’t know exactly what it is. With the internet at our fingertips, we are distracted constantly. I suppose I cannot speak for others, but I have felt a huge impact on my creativity, ability to focus and just THINK. It’s a habit of so many people, including myself, to pull out the smartphone when we have an idle moment or when we are waiting for something or someone. Instead of putting ourselves out there and talking to a new person or simply letting the mind wander silently while closing the eyes and enjoying some sun, we’re scrolling those social media feeds, which feed us glamorous bits and pieces of other peoples’ lives and force us to compare ourselves. If I were to add it all up, it has already wasted so many hours of my lifetime. What did I even get out of it that’s real? A few meaningless likes and followers?
As I approach 30 and start thinking about having children in the next decade, I’ve realized that we have entered a completely different era of technology. My children will grow up completely differently than I did. I see how older people fear computers, and I don’t want to be like that with whatever’s next. But I also see how Instagram consumes young peoples’ lives, and can have a very damaging effect. I can’t help but see the dangers.
With mobile phone networks expanding and smartphone usage increasing throughout Africa, I would imagine it’s becoming quite the same. Smartphones are simultaneously wonderful and horrible, in my opinion. They are allowing farmers to better access global markets and increase learning opportunities for people with limited educational resources. Fantastic. But they also deepen the feeling of inequality through exposure to the lifestyles of foreign countries, driving migration to places where certain people unfortunately aren’t accepted. I hate to romanticize poverty, but I do have fond memories of living in an extremely poor, isolated community. It may have been poor, but people were peaceful, curious and engaged, and they were relatively satisfied given the little resources they had. They couldn’t see what they were missing out on. It was a necessary and life-changing experience that taught me a lesson about what is important in life. It’s about being genuine, maintaining good relationships and being open to creating new ones, finding enjoyment in simple things, and being engaged and present.
Maybe it’s not so evident, but over the last year I’ve suffered a bit of an identity crisis in Switzerland. Because I try not to define myself using external factors (like my job, who I’m married to, etc…) and I realize how short my time on Earth is, I’m increasingly asking myself: Who am I? What am I doing here? Who do I want to be? Life is one huge learning lab, but we only have once chance to do it.