Burst my bubble

Guest author Lizzy H loves the bubble she get around in. But she also wonders: are our bubbles making us less human?

Two seemingly unconnected events this morning.

The first – coming up the ramped subway to the train station, a guy in a wheelchair is struggling with the incline. He’s hauling himself and the chair awkwardly, painfully up the slope by the handrail. It’ll probably take him ten minutes of slog to get to the top. A dozen or so people walking down the ramp (as early as I for the train), with headphones on but looking up, don’t pause.

It takes about ten seconds from me making eye contact to “Need a hand?” “Yeah, thanks”, a push up to the flat footpath, “Cheers”, “Have a good one”. The cost to my morning versus the benefit to his…yet all those able-bodied people decided to keep walking.

The second – on a shared footpath that’s narrow for quite a while, a woman’s walking her dog ahead of me. She’s going briskly, the pair of them leaving no space to pass courteously.  Multiple rings of the bike bell: “Hi there”, “Good morning”, “Can you hear me?” get responses from the dog – but she’s oblivious in headphones. There’s no squeezing past and I need to get to work – so I get off the bike, walk up, tap her shoulder. She shrieks and whirls around, her face horrified.

“Sorry! Sorry!” I say. “I’m just trying to get past.”

She and dog retreat to the far side of the path, she looking wounded.

“I was trying to get your attention, I didn’t want to startle you.”

She looks blank, then takes out one earbud. “What?”

I repeat. She takes out the other, listens, eventually smiles. “It’s ok. I couldn’t hear you, though – in my own world. Cheers.”

I ride on, feeling vaguely guilty about having inflicted such angoisse. I’d invaded her bubble.

Bubbles. We all create them; they insulate us from the world’s dérangements, we’re helped to make them the ultimate sensory experiences. And, fundamentally, everyone has the right to have their “bubble” respected (“we are not your jukeboxes”).

But beware our bubbles’ power to erode our humanity.  If you’re reading this you’re probably able – like me – to create a lovely and durable bubble. iPod and headphones can insulate us from the world’s sounds. Add things that reduce the odds of accidental eye contact – sunglasses, hoods, the long fringe, staring straight ahead – and the bubble has become even more world-proof. It’s an enjoyable bubble which we control, of which the centre is our mission – get to work/get home/get to the café/to the car/to school/keep a good pace for the dog. Interruptions from the outside world are just that – interruptions: they break our flow, invade the bubble.

But where others’ need to share the path creates a frightening jolt, and even the subsequent conciliatory exchange has to breach the barrier of headphones, your bubble’s becoming pathological. The world won’t go away, so staying turned towards it – tuned towards it – means fewer shocks and more pleasant experiences from it for you.

Bubbles can easily become pathologies of society. A bubble becomes pathological when it dehumanises us – makes us less likely to connect with other humans, to reach out. It’s not the “big stuff” – whether you donate to charities or volunteer. It’s the small things – those tiny, frequent occasions where the world forces instantaneous choices; tiny demonstrations of humanity.

When you see something – someone struggling, a little harm about to happen, a situation pregnant with great possibility – do you keep walking or help? Do you say something or pretend everything’s ok? Do you give it a little boost or let the energy fizzle out? If there’s a great song in your head at the time, are you less likely to interrupt your morning?

A bubble is a bubble – whether it’s filled with an awesome podcast, Taylor Swift, or just checking emails. Is your bubble making you a little less human every day?




Image credit: Stan Honda AFP-Getty Images



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