Bursting Our Bubbles

We live in bubbles. Perhaps not all of us. But certainly the vast majority of us.

I was reminded of this fact this past week when I read David Brooks’s column in the New York Times. Brooks, a preeminent columnist for one of the world’s preeminent newspapers, was seeking to understand the motivations beyond supporters of Donald Trump. Here is what he concluded:

[M]any in the media, especially me, did not understand how they would express their alienation. We expected Trump to fizzle because we were not socially intermingled with his supporters and did not listen carefully enough. For me, it’s a lesson that I have to change the way I do my job if I’m going to report accurately on this country.

That’s a startling admission. David Brooks, who presumably has to have his finger on the pulse of the country if he is to do his job well, admitted, “I have to change the way I do my job.”

Why? I think it’s because he forgot we all live in a bubble.

It’s easy to forget. And it’s easy to forget that we need to burst our bubble from time to time.

Personally, this point was driven home when I served in Governor Rendell’s cabinet as Secretary of Community and Economic Development. That role took me to all parts of the commonwealth — parts I’d never seen and other parts I’d not seen in a very long time. At the time, we lived in Chester County, just west of Philadelphia. We had been there for a dozen or so years. It seemed pretty average to me. I had forgotten that Chester County was the one of the wealthiest counties in the state — indeed, the country. It was my bubble.

As I traveled throughout the commonwealth as secretary, I was struck by two things. First, I was pleasantly surprised by all the innovation and ingenuity that was at work. People are doing amazing things. It’s a far different country than that described by some politicians. Second, I was struck by the amount of poverty. My god, I thought, there are so many poor people in Pennsylvania — so many people who have so little.

It’s surprising what you might learn when you get out of your bubble.

I’m reminded of the time in college I spent as an intern with the state narcs (undercover law enforcement officers who enforce drug laws). I surveilled, rode with backup on drug deals, helped process arrestees, and, once, even was part of a drug buy (unplanned). As a country boy from rural central Pennsylvania, I was shocked by all the bad stuff going on all around us, every day. And I think most other people would be shocked if they knew. It’s just that we don’t see it from the perch within our bubble. But there are people who do. Some of these people are young children. Can you imagine growing up in that bubble?

It makes sense that we spend most of our lives in bubbles. Our bubbles are comforting. They’re secure. They bring order to what might otherwise seem like an overwhelmingly complex, messy and evil world. But is it good to stay there?

I think not. I think not because I don’t see how I can empathize with others without having a sense for what it’s like to live their lives. I don’t think I can be tolerant of differences if I never leave my bubble. Or be compassionate. Or work constructively with others whose experiences and perspectives are different from mine to address our problems and move society forward to a better place. I don’t see how I can truly know much about the world if the only thing I can draw upon is my own limited experience and sight.

The problem is, we seem to be staying more and more in our bubbles. Hence, we seem unable to interact with people who see the world differently from a political standpoint. Some Democrats can’t understand how Republicans can think the things they do and vice versa. Many people can’t understand how anyone could vote for Donald Trump — or for many of the other candidates for that matter. Some people seem to be unable to grasp how good, hardworking people can be poor. Some fail to comprehend the role genetics, culture and policy choices play in people’s and society’s lives.

I suppose we don’t understand because it’s really hard to truly converse with others and gain an understanding of their beliefs and motivations from our position of safety and solitude in our bubbles. There is simply a lot we don’t see from there. And many voices we don’t hear.

Vera, you’ll have your bubble just like the rest of us do. You’ll have to decide whether it’s worth bursting from time to time. I hope you do.

I suppose there are many ways to burst bubbles, including the following ones I’ve employed from time to time:

  • Read contrary opinions (for example, read what people with starkly different political and ideological views are writing and read about other religions and cultures — better yet, get to know some of those people)
  • Remind oneself (often) that everyone sees the world just a bit differently — that everyone’s experience is different — and that our individual experience is not superior to anyone else’s
  • Remind oneself that much of what we think and believe is a made-up construct that helps us deal with the world and is principally informed by our genes and the culture we just happened to be born into — that our construct is not necessarily fact or reality — that much of what we mistake for reality is merely opinion or views through lenses we can’t see and easily forget exist
  • Spend time with those whom I refer to as the “silent ones” — the poor, the forgotten, the powerless — those whom we rarely see or meet and whom the world seldom hears
  • Visit someone in prison and hear their story
  • Travel, preferably to a place unlike your own — one of the reasons I promote study abroad with college students
  • Spend time with nature, that is, with the physical planet — hike to a high mountaintop, where the world looks different, where it’s impossible not to have a different perspective, where you come to appreciate the ancients’ belief that our god resided there
  • Appreciate time — learn that each of us is but a flicker in history’s light
  • Learn — never stop learning, keep an open mind
  • Listen — and then listen some more

Over the years, I’ve tried to get out of my bubble. I’ve tutored prisoners. I’ve befriended and visited a condemned man on death row. I’ve led youth trips to Appalachia to repair homes. I’ve traveled to Mexico with friends to build a home. I’ve fed street people. I’ve counseled and taught kids from different backgrounds and socioeconomic groups. I’ve interacted with wealthy and powerful people in connection with my work. I’ve dealt with powerful politicians and CEOs of some of the world’s largest companies. I’ve traveled to different places. Yet I feel like it’s been a drop in the bucket.

Nonetheless, I suppose it’s been worthwhile. Unlike David Brooks, I can understand why some people vote for Donald Trump. Or Ted Cruz. Or Bernie Sanders. Or Hillary Clinton. I can understand why some people admire President Obama and others don’t. I can understand why we live in our enclaves. Why we embrace different religious dogma. Why we go to war and kill other parents’ children. Why we fail to agree on common-sense solutions for our communities and nation, to our collective detriment. Why we do and don’t do some of the things we do and don’t do.

But there is a lot I don’t know or understand. I don’t understand why we think bubbles are the best place to live our lives. Or why the cries of the suffering don’t get through to us. Or why there is so much hate and anger in the world.

I can’t help but think that the world would be a better place if we all spent less time in our bubbles.

 

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