The Illusion of Isolation

Every once in a while I listen to a podcast that fundamentally changes the way I think about something. I can almost feel the new idea take up residency in a corner of my brain and the new connectors fire into place. And when a new life experience triggers that idea it lights up like an outfielder under a pop fly. “Yep, I’ve got that one.”

Last year I listened to a podcast that changed my view on why people seek out groups that are like themselves. It was an Invisibilia episode called The Power of Categories and it argues that humans use categories as a kind of decision short hand. It argued that we can’t possibly assess every new data point fully on its own, so we use categories and we generalize.

To make the point it talked about a gated retirement community in Florida specifically designed for individuals who grew up in India. The development started just as the real estate market collapsed and yet surprisingly it still managed to thrive amidst foreclosed properties and a housing glut. Why? Individuals who felt they were dying wanted to be around people who were most like them, safely in a category of sameness. They didn’t want to feel weird for living the way that was most familiar, the way they had grown up — from little things like how they liked their coffee to big things like the rituals of dying.

In short, they just wanted to live in a place where it was easy to be normal.

So when the Brexit vote results came out, and later when the polling data suggested that there were strong splits based on age and nationality, that little light in my brain flickered. And I thought about the whole thing not from the point of view of a 43-year old enjoys that feeling of discomfort in the new, but as someone who is struggling every day to exist in a world that is changing, a world that no longer feels normal. People who, like those Indian retirees, want to create a place like the one they grew up in where they don’t have to work so hard to make sense of things and fit in.

The light intensified, I got it.

I have watched firsthand the challenge of adapting to a new normal. My husband struggled painfully when we lived overseas where everything felt like an attack on his foundation. Road signs were weird. Hot dogs were weird. Shopping was weird. TV was weird. Language was weird. Traveling was weird. I tried to make a little sanctuary of normal, but I couldn’t do enough. Living as an outsider takes a proactive willingness to shift your normal and we never got there.

So, I get it. Both philosophically and personally, I get it. Categories are real, normal is easy. There’s just one problem with that: isolation is an illusion. 

In 2016 we can’t put up walls to keep foreign people and ideas out of a neighborhood or a country. In earlier times there were real obstacles to overcome in order for new ideas to shift the normal: mountains and oceans and forests. But today the spread of people and information means that we are exposed daily to other normals and some of those are going to better. Some of them are going to stick and become the new normal, whether everyone wants it or not.

And if we’re honest with ourselves, those physical obstacles never really kept our normals from evolving, they just lengthened the time it took for those ideas to take root. One immigrant coming into a community can influence normal a very small amount, a group of immigrants can make a shift. One book from an outsider causes some readers to think differently, one video gone viral causes a mass of people to see differently. We live in a time when a well-established normal can change within a generation, when it used to take multiple generations. It’s scary, the speed of change, but we shouldn’t pretend that we can stop it.

I spend a lot of time with my children cautioning them against using the word weird. We talk about how our experience is different than others, but that it is not better. I try to ask them to think about how others would view a situation, to recognize that they are judging the circumstances in a way that is limited by their narrow experiences. I will not promise that the world they live in will remain unchanged, and I believe that it is my job to give them the ability to adapt.

Because I know it will hurt when the world busts open their normal box and every crack I make will help it hurt a little bit less.