The Human and Family Costs of Efficiency

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Our society values efficiency. That seems to be one of the hallmarks of the technological and industrial revelations: we can do more with less labor. For example, once upon a time, most families would have to produce their own food. Most homes had gardens and animals that they lived off of. Then, food-producing was centralized to farmers in the community—each community had a farm or two that produced the food for the town. Then, food-producing was even more centralized and technologized, until now, whole nations can subsist off of a few major agricultural corporations. This has freed up the time and labor of the rest of the populace for other pursuits.

It seems to me that there has been good and bad consequences. The good: people have more time for other, non-life sustaining things. The bad: people don’t know how to feed or take care of themselves if they ever need to, thus leading to a dependent population. Whether the pros outweigh the cons, I don’t know. That’s not the issue here.

What struck me today is that we are often looking for this same kind of technological efficiency in other areas of our lives. Such as, for example, caregiving of our family members. Once upon a time, parents were the primary educators of their children—now, we’ve centralized this so that parents can spend their time doing other things. Once upon a time, children were the primary caregivers of their parents when they were old. We’re moving to centralize this as well, so that the elderly can be cared for en masse and by professionals, again, allowing the rest of us to spend time on other pursuits.

What is the human cost of this, though? Isn’t part of the purpose of this life to suffer for each other, to hurt for each other, to inconvenience ourselves for each other, and to serve each other? Does someone who never has to stay awake at night watching a sick child, or patiently help their child read their first book, or wait patiently for weeks by the bedside of an aging parent, changing their adult diapers or spoon feeding them, miss out on some of the fundamental teaching experiences of life?

It’s true that many of these tasks can be technologized and centralized, so that like farming, the few can do the work while the rest of us go about our daily lives. We can spend time with loved ones without ever getting our hands too dirty with the mundane and sometimes uncomfortable or inconvenient task of caring for them and nurturing them. But just because we can doesn’t necessarily mean we should—isn’t our life enriched by these experiences?

I just sometimes wonder if love is cultivated by work and sacrifice—if a missionary could teach the gospel without ever breaking a sweat, or getting rejected, or hurting on behalf of those he serves, will he ever truly love the people as much as he could? And in the same way, if we never have to break a sweat, change a diaper, get our hands grimy, get hurt, stay up for nights on end, and patiently tend and care for our family members, will we ever learn to truly love them as much as we could?

It’s just a thought—what do you think? Is institutionalizing and centralizing the care of our children and the elderly a way of turning the hearts of the fathers away from the children, and the hearts of the children away from the fathers?

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