The most fascinating group of people in fiction are Tolkien’s hobbits. They live comfortably in the Shire reading books, smoking pipes, and over-indulging in food and drink. Their lives are happy and quiet and they have little contact with the outside world. Beautiful panpipe and tin whistle music follows them wherever they wander, and the sun is generally out. Green grass spreads over the countryside, giving them wonderful views outside of the windows in their well-stocked hobbit holes. A feeling of deep contentment fills each of the inhabitants of their culture, and they want nothing more than to continue on as they always have done. And there is no good reason to change until external events force them to. However, too little is done too late, and Hobbiton is taken over by evil forces for a time.
One of the wonderful abilities of great writers is their knack for describing universal characteristics of human nature. Tolkien’s work is some of the best published in the modern era, and there is much to reflect on from his writing. Though we might not all live in the idyllic Shire, like the hobbits in the “Lord of the Rings”, most of us find ourselves within a very specific social circle. This circle is generally composed of people that we agree with on several issues, and whose company we desire at least occasionally. Thus, our groups become very comfortable and little thought is given to real social interaction with people not inside the circle.
As with the hobbits, sometimes we are forced to come to terms with outsiders through external forces, usually beyond our control. When I was growing up, the vast majority of my friends consisted of white anglo-saxon protestant homeschoolers involved in the NCFCA and living in central Texas. While my education in high school was classical, giving me a more liberal and varied upbringing than many people I knew, my group was socially homogeneous. Apart from a few neighbors and co-workers, I mainly associated myself with one particular group.
It was only after I graduated high school and started college in Michigan that I was truly immersed in a culture that did not consist of people who thought and spoke exactly like I did. I met Catholics who did not possess a tail, atheists who were just really nice people, and even Californians. My bubble had effectively been popped. And I actually appreciated it. Just like the hobbits, I had become overly comfortable in my culture at home, and had developed lazy thinking in multiple areas. The new friends I made forced me to be intellectually honest in areas broader than relatively obscure theological conflicts. Also, I developed an amount of intellectual humility that had been severely lacking before. I discovered that perhaps I was wrong on few issues, and I had to be willing to accept that.
When I returned home after my freshman year, a new phenomenon had developed. While my original bubble had been popped, I had joined my college’s bubble. To be sure, I knew how to function quite well with the group that had been my main points of contact before college, but I now felt alien and slightly uncomfortable in my own house. I cringed every time someone I knew made a generalization about a group that I had learned more about during college, and I am sure those around me did the same when I made a generalization acceptable only at my school.
To be sure, we don’t join or form bubbles with the intent to shut ourselves out from the world. We generally really like the people we’re with, and subconsciously join them. Also, the groups themselves don’t have any sort of specific agenda of creating a theme of close-mindedness. It just happens due to the character of a social circle. In addition, bubbles aren’t all bad. As humans, if we constantly socialized only with people who shared none of our beliefs or values, we would more than likely either go crazy or become conviction-less.
On that note, consciously socializing outside of our bubble can do a lot to help us form stronger convictions by thinking better, as with my experience with my first year at college. The only way we can determine what things we assume is by encountering someone who holds a different position. Imagine having a conversation with a person who does not believe in gravity. Through the course of the conversation, you would more than likely make an attempt to convince him otherwise. Doing so would force you to actually consider and organize your beliefs about science in general, thus making you perhaps more careful about your assumptions. Breaking outside of one’s group does the same thing. Additionally, this type of socialization can lead to us dropping illogical or unreasoned beliefs that we had previously taken for granted without much examination.
In the end, our groups are convenient and appealing. The members within are intellectually safe and welcoming. The outside world is scary and foreboding. Yet crossing into the unknown and untested can grow us in ways about which we wouldn’t normally think. We like comfort, but we should really err on the side of intellectual honesty and personal development rather than perceived safety.