Thursday, January 12, 2017

Message in the Bubble

There's been a lot of talk lately about "the bubble." Whether it's a rich celebrity from Hollywood or some good ol' boy living in the Rust Belt, if someone doesn't think, live, act, talk like we do, they must live "in a bubble," which is a not so subtle way of saying that their perception of reality is wrong. They simply don't "get it." They can't know what "real" America is, or what "real" Americans care about, because they live safely protected in their bubble.

How can Meryl Streep, who is likely loaded with more money than she can ever spend, with every known advantage to keep herself and those she loves safe from the wolves that howl at the rest of our doors, know what it's like to go out and work a twelve-hour day, doing manual labor, scrimp and put together a budget for a family, worry about what a catastrophic illness might do for our long-term financial plans for our loved ones?

After years of successfully following dreams she entertained as an ordinary girl in Jersey decades ago, she probably doesn't know exactly what John Q Public's experience is like in 2017. On the other side of that argument, neither would Donald J. Trump. Keep in mind that Meryl wasn't born famous - but DJT was born rich.

If we're going to accept that rich celebrities live in a bubble, we have to take it the whole way, guys. The problem is that we don't, and I think I have figured out why.

Here's the awful truth about "the bubble." We all live in one. Whether you're on one of the detested coasts or smack in the middle of rural America, your whole existence is designed to operate in an echo chamber, where everything that gets repeated back to you is what you already sort of somewhat believe. From the time you can make decisions for yourself, you build up the world around you in a way that makes sense to you. You fill your life with people who, most of the time, agree with your perception of reality. Whether you attend churches or whether you frequent bars, you surround yourself with those who reflect back to you what you already know and believe to be true.

The only real difference is how big these bubbles are. Some are big enough to fit in several points of view, while others are fairly rigid. And this is across the board, by the way. No one party, gender or race has cornered the market on rigidity. It is simply our perception that they have, by what we understand of our differing safe little bubbles.

If you ever uttered, "All ____ do/think/act this way," you've indulged in bubble thinking. It applies your knowledge and wisdom, crafted from your own life experiences, and assumes everyone comes at life the same way, with the same challenges and advantages. We like to believe that we're all equal, so if someone doesn't think/feel/act the same, they're the misshapen puzzle piece that just won't fit and, clearly, the problem.

Spoiler alert: in one's own bubble, they fit just fine. The problem, then, isn't their bubble, it's ours.

It's just easier to dismiss someone who thinks differently as the one living "in a bubble." The vacuum we all create for ourselves rejects any other reality. It has to, otherwise those precious bubbles around us would pop and leave us feeling insecure, vulnerable, isolated and afraid.

You want to test the bubble theory, try thinking about the things that frighten you most. If that includes one celebrity offering a differing opinion on national TV you don't like but NOT a notably opinionated celebrity-turned-president-elect filling a cabinet full of people who want to take away the little things you've been given (and now have the authority to do so,) then, yeah. You're in every bit as much of a bubble as I am. I'm not a sore loser, I'm afraid. I'm afraid that the things that used to make sense in my bubble no longer make any sense at all, which changes the color and shape and sound of the world around me.

In my bubble, one doesn't run for the highest office in the nation and mock the disabled on national TV, explaining it away by telling me I didn't see what I saw with my own two eyes.

In my bubble, someone who is about to take on the most powerful, most important job in the world, should be focusing his energy on his promise to "make America great again," not whining about his critics on Twitter.

Both DTJ's behavior and mine illustrate a deeper truth as well as another facet of the Bubble Problem. Out of self-preservation we reject anything that doesn't fit into our perception of reality. Only there really is no "reality," only perception. Which means that we're all living in these micro-bubbles, and as such, we cannot really reject, out-of-hand, what might be going on in someone else's bubble as fake, because to them it is very real. It is every bit as real to them as what you experience in your own bubble, and every bit as valid to them, even if it doesn't make sense to what you know as true.

A prime example of this is the Black Lives Matter movement. Much of the criticism heaped on it comes from those who have no experience at all with what it means to be black in America. When they rebut with, "All lives matter," they're coming from a genuine place. They really believe they view all life equally, which is code for "same." They figure the same rules apply to everyone as they do in their own bubble. They don't know what it means to be overlooked for a job, education or a place to live based on the color of their skin, to be make less money, to be forced to accept less by virtue of where they ultimately live, to be an instant suspect simply because they happen to drive the wrong car through the wrong neighborhood. If a black person tries to convey their experiences, which often includes all of these things, that experience is immediately rejected as untrue. It just doesn't make sense in their bubble. They, after all, never perpetrated those injustices on you. And if they didn't live it, and didn't do it, how could it be really, really real?

Interesting side note, watch how defensive they get if you try to tell them about their inability to relate. This is bubble thinking at its worst. We're screaming at each other, safely entombed in our own points of view, and nobody hears a damned thing.

The biggest obstacle we face to unifying as a country, as a species, is our knee-jerk response to invalidate the experiences of others, which ultimately breaks down our ability to relate to one another. Some would say that kind of fallacy decided this last election, and I can hardly disagree.

If we're going to make it through the next few years, we have to go about this a little differently. This type of division cannot be the new normal. We poke giant holes in our survival, particularly as a nation, if we simply accept it into our bubble that this is just the way things are. Eventually this will bite us in the ass. It has to. Universal law: you reap what you sow. What you send out comes back. And nobody, absolutely nobody, will benefit if their success is at the expense of others. Nobody wins a game when it is rigged to change the rules around for this person or that person, depending on whether or not their bubbles happen to align.

At least that was what we were told when we made strides forward with LGBT rights, women's rights, and rights towards healthcare access. This came, we were told again and again, at the cost of others who were simply trying to protect their bubble. Now we have to suck it up and accept it when the progress we've made is undone because the bigger bubble of America just doesn't have room for it.

Bullshit. Here's the hard truth: there is room for it because ALL of our bubbles align.

If you break it down, the insides of each of our little echo chambers look and operate exactly like those we assume are so completely different. If you were to sit down and talk with the total stranger you despise simply because their bubble experience doesn't make any sense to you, I think you'd learn a few things. Down at our core, we all want to feel safe and secure. We all want to be valued and accepted. We all want to be treated fairly and justly. We all want to be able to protect the ones we love. We long to be heard. We yearn to be validated. We are the ultimate creators who want to take the barest sliver of time we have been given and make an impact that will reverberate through time, whether that means raising good kids, making our own fortune, or creating things that will last far beyond the dashes between the date of our birth and the date of our death. This is how humans fight off mortality, our greatest enemy of all.

The only differences lie in the details, but who has the time for details? In 2017, we'd much rather have a 140-character bumper sticker slogan than an essay, so the details are shrugged away as insignificant inconveniences. Yet the details are the very things that craft the interesting, diverse bubbles we live in. We're not just living in bubbles, we're actively writing our stories every single day. You can dismiss the bubble, but those stories have value. In the end, they're the only things that matter because they are the only things that are left.

To prove my point, I'll make an example of my own "bubble" by telling you my story. I grew up in the 70s, in small-town Texas. I say small town, but that might be misleading. I lived in cities all my life, just nothing bigger than 120,000 or so until I was 19 and made a beeline for California. Still, a small city in Texas still acts like a small town, which was especially true in the 70s. You've seen Dazed and Confused, I'm sure I don't have to tell you. People will run into folks they know at the supermarket and spend about fifteen extra minutes just chit-chatting and catching up. I know this, because my mom used to do this. She worked at a neighborhood grocery store where we shopped, and going to the store with her often meant being delayed by a half-hour as she bumped into no fewer than four people she knew.

(This phenomenon recurred when she went back to visit said town after living out of state for more than a decade - to show you exactly what "small town" feels like even if you don't technically live in one.)

Part of this particular bubble included religion, which is a bubble in and of itself no matter what god you serve. I grew up in a Southern Baptist family, where going to church wasn't just a way to pass the time, it was a duty. One of my mother's favorite punishments of choice was making me go to church to prove a point. I was entrenched in religion literally from the womb, which shaped my bubble in a big way - although not exactly the way my parents, or my preachers, would have expected.

I was very tender-hearted from birth, so telling me "There but for the grace of God go I" cemented in my brain. I had a heart for the underdog because the Jesus I got to know in the Bible had a heart for the underdog. (Which, really, was all of us in the end, wasn't it?) With every prayer we said, I was taught to be grateful for what we had, even though we never really had a lot. My dad was big on living small. The only things he bought on credit were houses. Everything else, we lived within our means, which was never very much. In my bubble, you weren't prized for what you had as much as what you did.

See, my dad was older when I came along. He was 61 when I was born. His life started in 1908 as part of a poor, rural family that boasted eleven kids. He literally picked cotton. My Uncle Jack once wrote this of their upbringing:

"Dad bought a farm near Emma in 1916, but we did not move there until December, 1919 when I was five years old. Dad shipped everything by Santa Fe while the family rode in a new Model T Ford. We spent the night in a Silverton hotel and after eating a delicious breakfast in the dining room of the hotel, started on our long journey. We lived in a rent house until our home was built. We kids walked three miles to school except when it was too cold and then we rode in the covered wagon. Jim, Ethel, Katie and Elder "Bud" were born at this place. Death struck twice while we lived there: Bob, then our little baby sister Ethel.

I remember Mama picking cotton with a child riding on her cotton sack then going home and cooking a big supper for all of us. She washed on the rub board, drawing water from a dug well, heating it it a big black pot in the yard. She did the ironing with irons heated on the wood stove. My parents raised everything we ate: meat, fruits and vegetables, as well as milk cows. The milk and butter was kept cool by the windmill. There was always work to do and not much time left for playing with our homemade toys.

The depression came and we lost everything we had."

That uncle went on to make a nice fortune in West Texas, but no matter how much money he had or the nice home he lived in, in his bubble was the same humble origin. So was my dad's, and so was mine.

My mom's bubble was a little wider. Hers was still shaped by death, losing her older sister and her father by the time she was 15, where she moved to Southern California to live with her older brother and his new wife. This was a far cry from how she started in small town Oklahoma, where they still delivered milk to the house by horse-drawn carriages. They were still super duper religious, though, thanks to my Auntie Babe, an ex-dancer and 1950s divorcee who went on to marry a man much younger than her. This apparently inspired her to be even more devout. My mom's brother and sister-in-law lived even more humbly than my dad's family, since she took it to heart one didn't store up one's wealth on earth. They never even owned a home, living in the same two-bedroom house for decades that they rented. He had a stable career with the city of Hawthorne, which provided in their old age and, ultimately, went to pay for their care when their health started to fail.

My mom wasn't so lucky.

Both sides of my family were shaped by the Great Depression and the kind of economic insecurity that came with it. My dad's folks were not only around during the Dust Bowl, with several escaping from Oklahoma to California like many, many others did, but my dad's family part of the "land grab" that brought my once northern family down to the south to settle for good.

These were the same Irish folk who were enticed to leave the motherland and settle Pennsylvania, which makes me the daughter of immigrants (and yankees.)

By the time I came around, however, we were solidly southern. We believed in God, family, and clean, honest living right from the earth. Texas is in my blood through and through. We were God-fearing folks who believed that all things happened for a reason, and that reason was so that we could be closer to God and doing his will. In my bubble, it wasn't wise to upset the Big Man Upstairs. You couldn't brag. You couldn't boast. You couldn't question. You could only be thankful, sure in the knowledge that God would never give you more than you could bear.

(For those who dismiss me as some California elitist liberal simply because of the way I vote and where I live, I bet I just popped the hell out of that bubble. Don't worry, though, my bubble has been reshaping itself for over 40 years. You get used to it.)

The first real tear in my bubble happened in 1974, when I was taken from my front yard and raped by a stranger. This was before stranger-danger was something you cautioned your kids against. I'm not even sure we locked our doors at night. I had no idea, absolutely none, what had happened to me or why. I simply didn't know how to process that with the things I already knew. So I fit this event into my existence the only way I knew how to at four years old. I assumed a bad thing happened because I somehow deserved it. In my bubble, Jesus loved all the little children. Experiencing this horrible thing just didn't fit. So I lied about what happened to me and buried it. I had to. Otherwise it jeopardized the bubble. What if my family saw how corrupted I now was and didn't love me anymore? That would have been devastating. And it didn't have to be true to shape my whole life. This is the insidious nature of bubble thinking.

The second tear happened in 1980, when my dad passed away. I went from a very normal-ish, stable life to life as a latchkey kid right at the dawn of the tumultuous 80s. Since my dad had been on disability most of my life, I was already used to my mom working and supporting the family. In my bubble, you did what needed to be done no matter what your gender, so it wasn't weird or odd to me that she worked and he didn't. He took care of me and I preferred it that way. I adored my dad and he adored me. Losing him threatened everything I knew to be true about my world. If pressed, I think you could say that was when I stopped trusting. The thing when I was four was a blip, an aberration. By time I was 11, this settled in my brain as a pattern. Again, bubble thinking.

But fate stepped in as fate is wont to do, patching up my bubble with a schoolmate who would turn into a lifelong friend who would expand my bubble in ways I couldn't even dream. I didn't know he was gay when I met him, and in fact didn't know he was gay until he came out to me eight years later. Just like that, my bubble exploded with new life. I got to know people I never would have known otherwise. I got to peek inside someone else's bubble and, thanks to my eternal bestie, I got to make myself comfortable in someone else's comfort zone. It wasn't just me anymore. It was us. He took that responsibility as a noble calling, doing more to silence my bubble thinking than anyone.

This was a good thing because my own bubble has been filled with some of the worst experiences imaginable. Death, obviously. Sexual abuse, obviously. But domestic abuse, homelessness, mental illness and poverty have all ridden shotgun in my bubble throughout the years. So many things have been a struggle ever since I was 11 years old. Well, really, since I was four. Each and every experience shaped my bubble because I had to fit it all inside the perimeters of what I was willing to tolerate. My bestie's bubble was a little more stable. He came from a home where both parents stayed together and were happily in love. He graduated high school, went to college, got into stable, long-term relationships. Often I felt like I was a complete loser in comparison, since my bubble had more holes and patches than Dolly Parton's coat of many colors.

Still just as beautiful though, but apparently you have to be open to my bubble to see it. (Spoiler alert: not everyone does.)

Here's what I can tell you about what has stayed consistent in my bubble. I still believe that there but for the grace of God, go I. I still want to champion the underdog. I still believe it's wrong to brag and boast when you could lift others up instead. I believe it's wrong to mock the disadvantaged, especially if you come from a place of privilege. I believe hard work eventually pays off and being a good person should count for something. Overall, I still want to feel safe and secure. I still long to feel valued and accepted. I still believe in and fight for justice and fairness. I have a burning desire to protect the ones I love. I still scream into the abyss, praying eventually I'll be heard. I want and need my experiences to be validated, so the precious years that I have been given can make an impact that will reverberate through time, something I've tried to ensure by raising good kids, by doing good work, by creating things that take all these experiences and fit them inside someone else's bubble, even if they're simply reading a book.

This is what brought me to California from Texas, which likewise changed the shape and texture of my particular bubble. One day I hope to sit tables away from Meryl Streep, in her company, worthy of the title "storyteller," "creator," "artist." And when that day comes, I know there will be those who see me where I am and judge that there is no possible way I could understand what "real" America looks like, "real Americans" look like, or what struggle and honest work look like. Because I create fake stories about real things, people will call me, a real person, fake, as if I can't possibly understand.

And I will shake my head, thinking that *they* are the ones in a bubble, because they can't see my lifetime of experiences because they're too focused on one teeny, tiny moment.

In doing so, we will both be wrong.

If there's one thing I know about the bubble, it's that the bubble can change. It's supposed to. It grows as you grow. You start out a baby, where your bubble is your family. Then you add school and friends. Work and experience. You expand for your interests, widening your perspective through new experiences and relationships. With every title you earn, the bubble widens accordingly to accommodate all that comes with it. With every new experience, every new friendship, every new heartbreak or trauma, that bubble widens and grows and allows other people inside of it who share your point of view, which can't help but shift with each new day. None of us, not one, are where we were when we started. The more titles we add to our identity, the more people we accept into our lives, the wider our bubble has to grow.

Our biggest problem now is that we refuse to let anyone else in because we want to keep that bubble tightly drawn, to keep control, to feel safe in a world that often doesn't feel very safe at all. We refuse to listen to or even entertain someone else's perspective. We reject this (and them) out of hand because we're so keenly focused on protecting our own tenuous little bubbles that were in fact designed to break. They have to break. That's how we grow.

America will never be "great" as long as we're these tiny micro-bubbles, rolling around and bouncing off of each other like an angry game of pool. Someone else is holding the stick, and we're blaming each other for the fact that we clash simply because we get in each other's way. You want to know what "real America" is? It's Meryl Streep accepting a lifetime achievement for acting. It's a police officer playing basketball with minority youth. It's a military family welcoming home a soldier. It's a football player taking a knee, whether to pray OR to protest. It's everything. It's all of us.

If you call yourself an American, the "bubble" is big enough to accommodate it all. That's what America means, from California to the New York island; from the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters. Same country, different view. Same people, different experiences. This is supposed to build us up, make us stronger, because we all want and value the same things. We all want to feel safe, protected and free, including the freedom to approach our goals in our own unique ways.

That's what liberty is.

I know it's scary to entertain new ideas and tolerate differing perspectives, but if you truly want to be heard you can't be afraid to listen. Don't dismiss the bubble, pop it. Step out of your comfort zone. Turn off the echo chamber and release the vacuum. We're all here. We all matter. And we all have value.

How great would it be if we all started acting like it?

No comments:

Post a Comment