I hear a lot of people claiming that others live in a “bubble.” It’s meant as an insult, meaning that someone has a sheltered, limited viewpoint and doesn’t understand the real world.
But what is the “real” world?
The bubble insult is often applied to urban, educated, or wealthy people, but it’s also applied to other groups. There are many synonyms for bubbles: ivory tower, elite, ignorant, parochial, narrow-minded.
Those who use these terms claim to have a handle on what is “really” going on. The truth. Where the sh*t hits the fan. They are on the front lines. Real people. True Americans. Living in real life.
It’s pretty common among doctors, as well, to assume that the viewpoint of other doctors is limited. Her? She’s a specialist – she’s a hammer, so everything looks like a nail. Him? He’s a primary care physician, so he has no idea what happens once he refers to the specialist. Radiologists? They don’t know anything about real patient care.
The truth is, we all live in our own bubbles. Humanity is amazingly unknowable. There are 7.5 billion people in this world. That number is so staggeringly large, we can’t truly picture it. Each of those people has their own, unique experience – how many of those can we say we know? All those people speak 6,500 languages and even if you are fluent in an impressive 10 languages, you’re still not even close to 1%. How can you know the experience of people whose language you not only don’t speak, but have probably never even heard of?
If you want to experience this more viscerally, go to a crowded place like a sports event, a concert, an airport, or a busy street. Look – really look – at the people you see. Think about how each person has a life story that you will never know. They all have friends, family – people who think about them every day. Each one imagines life as a movie in which they are the star and everyone else, including you, are extras or supporting players. And yet they pass by and you will never see them again. How many of those people could you really know? How easy would it be for you to group these people into categories, define those categories, and feel like you truly understand their lives?
Even in the microcosm of physicians, where there are only 20-30 medical specialties, we don’t know each other. Have you ever spent a day shadowing someone in a different specialty? I’ve done it and talked to others who have as well and 100% of them have been surprised by what they found. It turns out their perception of their colleagues was pretty limited.
Each of us lives in our own bubble, not because we are ignorant or isolated, but because the world is a large place and any one person’s experience can only be so big. Even if you try to expose yourself to as many new people, cultures, and facts as you can, your experience will always be dwarfed by what you don’t know. Your bubble will always be at human scale while the world is vast.
Despite this we are quick to make sure that people understand us without first trying to understand them, or even believing that there’s anything worthwhile to understand. We insist on claiming an inside track to reality, when the facts state otherwise.
So what do we do about this?
There are two perspectives we can use to examine the bubbleverse and our place in it. The first is our own bubble compared to the entirety of the world – the entire bubble-space, as it were. Respect that your portion of it is small, and you can’t know the vast majority of human experience. When you feel like telling someone that they aren’t living in the “real world” resist the urge and instead consider that they have a different experience than yours. Maybe it’s just that your two bubbles have not overlapped.
The other way is to to look at your own bubble and compare it to itself over time. It may be small compared to the world, but you can still enlarge it throughout your life. The more people you meet, the more you try to learn their perspectives, the larger your bubble becomes. You might double, triple, or quadruple its size. You still can’t claim to know what happens in the “real world” but you can certainly know a lot more than you did before.
Accept your bubble. Optimize it. Enlarge it. And respect what’s beyond it.