Someone pointed me to a recent episode called “Bubble-Hopping” from the podcast Invisibilia. The focus was whether it’s possible to escape the bubbles we all invariably inhabit. The main part of the episode focused on Max, a tech industry employee in San Francisco. Max created an app to help him experience things he would never choose for himself. His app perused Facebook for regional events and randomly assigns him an activity each Friday night. He has ended up in social settings with people from all walks of life, all backgrounds—even private family gatherings—where he is more or less welcomed once he explains how he got there. This simple act of bubble-hopping has totally transformed Max’s life and his view of others, and the episode explores the disorientation and benefits that come with such behavior.
American society has become more aware of bubbles as folks grapple with division and anger so latent in today’s world. In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, Charlottesville and NFL protests, we find ourselves staring through the media at people we don’t appreciate or understand. Whichever side each of us stands on, most of us increasingly find ourselves in bubbles of isolation that reinforce our views of what’s right and prevent us from hearing or understanding anyone outside the bubble.
I grew up in my own comfortable bubble. Although I prided on being from the North, Tennessee grew to dominate my worldview. Living in a small, southern town from the age of 9, I was totally enveloped in the southern way of life. Going off to college in east Tennessee at a conservative engineering school, my bubble only grew stronger. I had some exposure to new ideas and people from differing backgrounds, but my circle of friends contained people just like me—white and middle-class from conservative churches and communities. It was a great place to grow up, and I cherish the influences of so many people there on my life. But it was a bubble.
When I went off to seminary in Texas, I believed that my thinking was expansive. I felt that I had no prejudices and that my mind was totally open. It wasn’t long before disorienting feelings began to set in. I discovered that my categories were woefully inadequate. But even there, I settled into friendships with white, middle-class guys from small, southern towns who came from conservative churches and communities. We were questioning the boundaries of those worlds, but we were still confined to the same bubble.
There were small forays outside my bubble. I had experiences that made me question my view of reality. But at the end of the day, I always came back to people who rooted me in to the standard thinking of our group.
Then I got to know Vlasta. She caused me to escape my bubble. This required moving to Prague, Czechoslovakia, in the early days following the collapse of communism. My new friend Vlasta, a retired, divorced Czech woman, welcomed me and some friends into her life. One day, she was telling stories of her life as she guided us through the city. We heard how she had been imprisoned by the communist regime. The “Commies” were enemies we could all hate.
But then Vlasta pointed to the corner of one city block near the Vltava River. “That is the spot where American bombs killed my mom,” she told us with a tear in her eyes. It was a stunning revelation. I had to ask again to make sure I heard her right. There was no hatred for the Americans in her story, but there was pain. Someone had mistakenly carried out an aerial assault on Prague toward the end of World War 2. It was the only time the city was bombed in the war, but it took the lives of several civilians, including Vlasta’s mom.
You’ll never escape your bubble unless you get out among those who are different. I know it’s obvious, but it’s the only way. Knowing Vlasta and hearing her story forced me out of my bubble. I didn’t start to hate where I came from or the views I grew up with. But there was no way back into the simplistic understanding I had of my faith, my country, or even the world in general.
I don’t mean to suggest that this inoculated me against bubbles. I’ve been tempted to camp out in new bubbles that deride the old bubbles and create equally insular views of reality. There are bubbles at various and sundry points along the many spectra of society. While they provide comfort, they also prevent you from hearing your neighbors or even granting them a modicum or respect—all because those “others” are outside your bubble.
In one sense, leaving my bubble has left me with great sorrow. I miss the clear confines of my youth. I long for the strong sense of community I experienced with people who all viewed the world in the same way. But I fear that, unless more of us start making a conscious effort to understand the lives of others, our society may further devolve from mistrust and hatred into open violence.
Imagine if Jesus had never left his own bubble. Where would you be without his courage to enter the world of others? We too are called to go out. Even if only temporarily, aren’t there places you could go, people you could visit, or communities you could frequent that would stretch your understanding of life and the values that shape you?
We all have work to do. Where will you start? Are you willing to step out of your bubble?