Whenever I ride my bike to work, I find myself looking at each of the drivers passing by on 17th Street. This habit likely started out of safety, but it then quickly moved over to a fascination, for the majority of the times, I don’t recognize a single driver. This shouldn’t be a big deal given Hutchinson has over 41,000 people living here, but the place never seems that large. Rather, it has a small-town feel thanks to bumping into the same people at the grocery store, parks, concerts, theatre productions, Third Thursday, Young Professional events, and so forth. Then everyone seems connected too; however, these people driving by are a reminder Hutchinson is much larger than it feels, and they are also a reminder about the bubble in which I live.
The concept of living in a bubble has been on my mind a lot lately, and it has only seemed to grow over the last month thanks to two podcasts. However, before I get to those, let’s talk about bubbles. They can be pretty, safe, and comfortable, but they can be quite the opposite as well. It really all depends on what happens to make up a person’s own world. A lot of this can be indirectly caused by where one lives thanks to the stores and places he/she would tend to go. There are also direct causes that can help thicken the bubble’s walls, and in today’s world, it is so easy to do that by keeping only like-minded people in one’s social media network, watching/reading the news that lines up best with one’s beliefs, and surrounding oneself with friends who all share the same thoughts. Suggestions from websites only feed to this too with things like Google News analyzing the articles one tends to read, plugging this data into an algorithm, and the suggesting future news stories accordingly. Online music streaming sites, YouTube, and Amazon all do something similar with their recommendations that keep people in a nice, safe world rather than branching out. Although this is no doubt helpful in a way, it also leads to it being so much easier to get trapped in a bubble.
The trick, though, is breaking free.
NPR’s Invisibilia had a recent episode all about the reality we create thanks to bubbles, and one of the two people featured really intrigued me. Max Hawkins, a computer developer, decided to use technology in his favor by findings ways to hack/develop different apps that would allow for him to live a more random life. For an example, one such app searches all public Facebook events and randomly selects one for him to attend, and he goes. This has led to going to gatherings of all sorts that he never would have ever gone before with his meeting people whose paths his likely never would have crossed, which has led to new experiences, interesting conversations, and even new friends. His story led to my wondering how exactly I could do that with my own life with my now planning on making a more conscious decision to look at different things taking place in the area and picking one I likely never would have thought about tending before and going to it.
Invisibilia has been in my podcast subscription list for quite some time, so it’s definitely within my bubble. In fact, everything about me likely places me smack dab in the middle of the demographic in which it is aimed. Conversations with Bill Kristol, though, is definitely not.
Before we get into this second podcast that changed my life, let’s get into a little bit about my political bubble as a preface. I will say that I try my best to listen to people from all across the political spectrums, and this could be backed by stories in the Hutchinson News alone. Back in December 2015, a photo of me appeared having a great conversation (and it truly was a great conversation) with members of the Hutchinson Tea Party who were part of a Young Professionals Political Panel. Last year, my name came up as one of many who were collecting signatures for a Republican state senator candidate to be placed on the ballot. Then last June, my name appeared again in a story about a meeting of the Reno County Democrats where I stood up and spoke on behalf of Jason Probst regarding his interest in House of Representatives’ seat that became vacant after the tragic passing of the amazing Patsy Terrell. Then there would be quite a few stories about my non-partisan efforts chairing/co-chairing Kids Voting Reno County for the last three November elections.
I really do try my best honestly. However, with that said, there is an involuntary cringe that happens that I try very hard to hide when I find out someone I am talking to attends one of the churches in town that promote ideas that are not in favor of women and LGBT equality issues. That same cringe even happens when someone professes his/her love for Chick-fil-A despite my knowing about the good the restaurant chain has done as well (with that said, I still won’t eat there though). And while I will sometimes click on a Google News article from a source like Fox News, it is not often, and my favorite episodes of Fox & Friends would be Saturday Night Live’s, especially because of the list of corrections from the fact checkers at the end of each episode.
A similar cringe happened when I started listening to the interview with Nebraska’s Senator Ben Sasse on Conversations with Bill Kristol. I do want to be clear that the cringe doesn’t come from Sasse and Kristol being labeled as conservatives or Republicans. It was more about me preparing myself for another uber-conservative talk radio show of sorts that I have a tendency to listen to, especially the super religious ones, when I am on solo road trips (don’t ask why because I don’t know the answer either). The podcast wasn’t something I stumbled upon either. Rather, a friend of mine, who leans more toward the Libertarian side of the political spectrum, had referenced the podcast during a recent conversation, and based upon his and my discussion, I was intrigued to hear Sasse’s views on American society, especially regarding the Millennials. Both Sasse and Kristol had been on my radar from time to time but never for any length, nor were they ever a focus.
I listened on though, and much to my surprise in all honesty, the words of Sasse continually grabbed my attention with many of the things he said echoing similar thoughts and ideas I have attempted to express before during various conversations with friends, students, and anyone else who would listen. The biggest difference was Sasse is much more eloquent with his discussions about a society that is consuming life (or being consumed) via screens rather than “thinking about the habits of travel, of literacy, about learning to work, about the dangers of gluttony.” Many people I know from all different political spectrums would also agree with him when he says, “I think we want our kids to be curious. We want them to have a habit of reading. We want them to have a reading list of stuff they want to read. We want them to have the eyes that come from new travel.”
This great fascination with Ben Sasse has continued with my listening to the podcast a second time while in Colorado with my mother trapped in the passenger seat. Then soon I was following him on Twitter and watching his other interviews. Of course, his well-written book was also quickly purchased, and it was a great read with many great points. Just ask anyone who has been around me for any length of time, and they will tell you about my often now making references to Sasse, for more often than not, Sasse and I are on the same page with our overall beliefs even down to his not being able to conceive of the idea of being bored (I seriously don’t understand the concept. Sasse also made the fantastic point curiosity is the cure for boredom, which has led to my adding “incurious” to my often stated line that only boring people get bored).
Another shared point that became obvious in the interviews and his book was Sasse’s concerned about this growingly polarized bubbled world that seems to be forming. In fact, one of the main missions of his book was to fight that with the desire to bring people from all different sides together to strengthen the younger generation to the point the country will be in great hands when it comes their time to lead. Take this passage by Sasse from Conversations with Tyler:
One of the fundamental challenges of the moment we’re at is that we believe that the digital moment will necessarily expose us to more and more diverse things, and I think what’s actually going to happen is that we’re going to become more and more siloed. And there’s a real danger of tribalism and being able to at the moment that media is going to disintermediate. We’re not going to have big common channels anymore. We’re going to have more and more niche channels. It will be possible to surround yourself only with people who already believe what you believe.
In that world where you can create echo chambers and when advertisers and marketers and Russians are going to try to surround you with echo chambers to only believe what you already believe, it’s not going to be easy to develop empathy. It’s going to be really easy to demonize the other and come to believe that the deep problems of my soul and the deep problems of my mortality could maybe just be solved if I could vanquish those other really bad people from the field. That’s not true, and we’re going to have to, as a people, develop the maturity and the habits of empathy-creation, and that requires going other times and places both physically and in a literary sense.
Sasse captures the problems with bubbles. We become trapped and disconnected with others around us. It also doesn’t take long in the time in which we are living that ethnocentrism seeps in and blinds us either. Rather than empathy, a quick rejection can occur, and along with it can come quickly jumping to conclusions and reinforcing the bubble’s barriers.
The question then becomes how do we break free from a bubble. First, we need to recognize our bubble’s boundaries and reach beyond by getting out of our comfort zone. This can be something as simple as finding a public event, store, place, or even a restaurant we would never have gone to before and then going to it with an open mind. Also, while doing this, be sure not to bring one’s own prejudices to the experience. Rather, take with you a curiosity that leads to looking deeper into the experience. That can be the start. Of course, remember the power of conversation with others and avoiding nonsermitis. Even if a person may seem completely different on paper, similarities surely abound with all of us striving to have a better life. Here once again comes the importance of taking the time to listen to others rather than putting them in a box and brushing them off. I could have done that with Kristol and Sasse, but thankfully, that didn’t happen, and because it didn’t, so many ideas are now floating around in my head that are giving me hope for the future of our country.
One such idea is our political arena could be so much better if on a weekly basis during session, many of the politicians from the different parties would come together for dinner and a social hour following where they were not allowed to talk about politics at all. Rather, they could talk about their lives back home, their families, things about their districts that make them proud, their life histories, positive current events, travels, and all sorts of other things that groups of people getting to know each other would discuss. It couldn’t be a one-time thing either, but rather, it should be ongoing. In theory, through these outings, the fracture among the parties could start to mend as they would start to see people from the other party not as enemies but rather as friends who may differ in terms of some ideas but have same desire to improve society for all.
After all, we need to remember we are citizens of the United States of America. Unfortunately, that united part is showing quite a few fractures these days. Never will we all agree on something, and nor should we. It is through respectful substantial conversations and civil debates growth can occur. Carrying on these rather than quickly rejecting the other side could do so much good for us all. Plus, when it comes down to it, one of essential benefits of getting out of our bubbles is to grow not only as people but also as a society and a community.
Without a doubt, driving to work is much easier than riding my bike. Although tires on both travel the same route most of the time, the experience is very different. In addition to all of those people I mentioned earlier that I don’t recognize, there are also so many other things that come along with pedaling down 17th. Sure, not everything is always great, especially on one of those humid Kansas summer days, and you will be hard-pressed to find me riding to work during a frigid winter morning or when a hard rain is pummeling the ground. But then there are the times of that cool autumn breeze brushing against my face and also that delight that comes from a whiff of sweet flowers that had just started to bloom. Regardless of the season, the waves of neighbors and the grade school kids serving as crosswalk guards are always pleasant ways to begin the day. By staying comfortable in the confines of my vehicle, never would those little delights happen in my life. Plus, the pedaling helps burn off calories so I can devour more peanut butter too.
In all seriousness though, when it comes down to it, truly living our lives is all about putting ourselves out there. As John Donne wrote and as I found out as one of my first New Year’s Resolutions, no man (or woman) is an island. We should also avoid becoming islands of all like-minded people who never really grow. Rather, we should connect, or otherwise, we become, just like the bubbles in all of these photos scattered throughout this post, surrounded by beauty but never truly part of it.