You know that bubble you live in? Funny, me neither.

This week, readjusting to life away from the land of the Happy Blondes, a place where they actually pay for you to attend college among other fantasy-world dreams that become laws in bike-obsessed Nordic countries; my re-immersion has been a little rough. Oddly (or not?) my feeds and news channels have been filled with so many similar stories around the very opposite theme from what I experienced last week.

The theme is: Things people are doing to me that intrude on my right to live in a bubble.

In a bubble, there would be no crying babies on planes. In a bubble, there would be no people telling you that YOUR money should pay for SOMEONE ELSE’S birth control…or schools or fire department or or or. In a bubble, there would be no parents getting special treatment in the workplace. In a bubble there would be no employees at all who need to flex time because of their sick parents, their drug rehab, their chronic but manageable illness, their little league commitments, their jazz band practice, or their volunteer schedule. In a bubble there would be no pregnant woman hoping for a seat on the subway; maybe even that very seat you fought hard to get after a long day of sitting at a desk, dammit.

In a bubble, there would be no people who inconveniently ask for our help, our compassion, our support.*

*Unless it’s “me” who needs the help, compassion or support in which case all bets are off.

Maybe it’s a contentious election season or maybe it’s just something in the air right now, but I feel like I’m watching We The People devolve into some regressive caveman society founded on the principals of I The Individual.

If you don’t mind sliding that soapbox over this way for just a wee second, I’d like to ask, what the heck is going on in the world when we start to lose our sense of empathy?

How is it that we can stop seeing ourselves as inextricably linked, a planet of humans connected to other humans, each with the ability to save lives, raise up our weakest members, maybe even say to the single father at the office, “of course you can go home early. I hope your son is feeling better.” And mean it.

Because one day it may be you asking for some flexibility.

And if what?

When I flew to Spain last year, we were seated behind a toddler who shrieked and screamed the entire overnight flight despite his mother’s desperate attempts to calm him. For eight straight hours. I watched her slowly crumble into a pasty, pale, anxious shell of a woman, eyes rimmed with red, hands twitching with stress; hardly the confident, stylish European woman who had stepped on board with a smiling baby earlier.

Did I fantasize about dumping some Benadryl into the baby’s bottle at some point? Yes indeedy. But the angry glares and foot stomping from the other passengers did not change the situation any more than our sympathetic glances. The only difference is that I landed tired, but happy. Everyone else landed tired, but very very angry.

This weekend, at our annual end-of-summer pilgrimage chez Fairly Oddmother we took our families for a nice hour hike in the woods. I was blown away when I caught Christina’s 9 year-old daughter collecting random wrappers and scraps of garbage off the trail.

“I always pick up the garbage,” she told me. “So we leave it nice for the next people.

That’s one girl who will never live in a bubble.

I pointed it out to Thalia who thought well of the idea (despite being more consumed with amassing acorns than gum wrappers; acorns are a little more unusual in our neck of the woods).

I want so much to teach my girls values like cooperation, compromise, and compassion. I want to surround them with classmates, teachers, adults who value those things too. I love that she spent a weekend with kids who think, “even though those aren’t my wrappers, I’m going to make them my problem to fix.” But I’m terrified that it’s going to get harder. Because more and more, I’m sad to see they will also encounter those people who would tell them that values like compassion are for suckers.


53 thoughts on “You know that bubble you live in? Funny, me neither.”

  1. Hear, hear. I also want to raise more altruistic children. I take them to homeless shelters to stock up pantries, we deliver meals to the elderly at Thanksgiving. Yet they wouldn’t pick up the garbage on a hiking trail unless I asked them to. Sigh.

  2. Take heart – it is internet that is giving us the overblown version of bad-est a$$, in real life people are more congenial (even if only slightly). It is the anonymity of internet that is a b.tch.

    I still foolishly believe in goodness of people in general, and I see it everywhere (off-line). Either I’m inconsolable idealist (in which case I’m going to die happy), or is Italian wine still circling through me like a potent long-lasting drug (in which case, I’m in for rude awakening – same as you).

  3. Oh, how I love this. My goal in life right now is to pop that bubble my 4YO son is living in. I wish i could just go around popping everyone’s bubbles, because I think it would make everyone so much happier and far nicer to be around- the grumpy librarian who was horrified that my children ripped the naked page out of the “No David!” book, the politicians who keep bending the truth to make themselves look good and their opponent look bad since no one checks facts anyway, my student who acted all inconvenienced when to ld her that she couldn’t make up the quiz because she was ten minutes late to class.

    I want a magical bubble popper!

  4. Spot on as usual, Liz.

    When my son was in kindergarten I helped chaperone a trip to a local nature center. When a boy in his class walked past a candy wrapper, I suggested he pick it up so he could put it in the trash where it belonged. When he passed he showed it to the teacher, she ripped into him for picking up dirty trash. I was taken aback. I should have ripped into her. Instead, I apologized to the boy and told him that in my family, we’d rather clean up the mess than ignore it.

  5. I know it sounds simplistic, but we started by being examples ourselves. Offering a hand to someone with an overflowing arm of bags in the parking lot at the store, holding a door open, etc. At a really young age, we started taking the kids to shop for toys to donate at Christmas or to pick out canned good to give to the Food Bank. We made it clear that it was about walking away with things to help others, not about shopping for them (no matter how awesome those things were). What have we gotten in return? Amelia randomly brings flowers to her ballet teachers and gymnastic coaches. Just because. Both kids draw pictures and write notes for each other, for family members and their friends…just to tell them how much they love them. If one of them are offered something, they always ask for an extra for their sister/brother.

    Oh and we make a point to tell them, these things are the right thing to do, even if no one else offers to join in. We try to inspire THEM to be the examples for the people around them.

  6. Lately I had been feeling less like there were a bunch of bubbles out there. Then, yesterday, someone driving their car way too fast in our subdivision, whipped around a corner, through a stop sign, and nearly ran over my 7 year old on his bike. He limped home, a mass of contusions, bruises, scrapes, puncture wounds, tears and hurt pride.

    I sincerely hope the driver, who didn’t bother to stop and help the kid s/he nearly killed, got wherever s/he was going on time. After all, those damn kids shouldn’t be biking on the roads in the first place on a sunny afternoon after the first day of school lets out.

  7. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Thanks for the extra kick in the pants to sign me and Quinlan up to volunteer at the local food bank.

    Gotta start popping bubbles somewhere.

  8. Alyssa is so right.

    It is easy to forget that everything we do – from how we walk and drive and hold doors (or don’t) and speak to cashiers and random strangers – all of it – creates the world in which we live.

    I go to this cheap-ass raggedy cash-only gas station because the gas there is the cheapest around. Whenever I go in and this one girl is working, I get so happy – she has the most warm greeting and angelic smile that I feel good just handing her my $40. So now I have taken to giving her a $5 Starbucks card every once in a while, just to say thanks for being such a shiny human. She acts like I have handed over the keys to the Taj Mahal every time I do it.

    It really IS the little things, because the little things MAKE the big thing.

  9. Right on.

    This might be really simplistic but I always find myself irritated with parents who can not even bother to say good morning even when eye contact is made, then they will lean over and be nice to their kids. On a more difficult level I find it equally troubling that we forgive our kids and yet not other adults. Guess I’m going off on a tangent. But I like the door you’ve opened.

    I’m constantly thinking about community. My husband read a great book years back, “Bowling Alone” about how we are becoming more and more polarized. And I have to say more unhappy. Yes, with more people there equals, at times, more irritation. But certainly help and happiness.

    Enjoyed your post as always.

    1. For me it’s people who don’t hold the door open in the morning in the office building. Does it kill you to look behind you first and see if anyone is standing over your shoulder?

      1. we have to badge in. i got yelled at a couple of weeks ago for holding the door open for someone. sigh.

      2. What about when you’re holding the door and people walk right through without any acknowledgement – no nod, no “thank you,” not even a glance at you. It bruises my feelings a little.

        1. Also a personal pet peeve.

          I really love the line you had about how the little interactions we have all day inform our worlds. It’s so true.

  10. The bubble sounds like a lonely place to be.

    Whenever my son goes with me to walk the dog we always bring an extra couple of bags for garbage and clean up our block a bit. I hadn’t thought of that as anti-bubble activity, but now I will.

  11. The great thing about kids is that they see almost everything we do. They see behind the veil to the things that the outside world might miss. So if you live an altruistic life, if they see your compassion in every day small ways, they will model themselves on you. None of us can change our children doing something once a year, it is the day in and day out way that we conduct our lives that impacts our children.

    If we get out of the bubble, they will too.

    Can I just say if you are thinking about this so early and clearly, you don’t need to worry.

  12. Ahhh, yes.

    Quote from my most recent blog post on a similar topic:

    I recognize my sense of well being as highly affected by the well being of those around me.

    Call me selfish, but I’m going to vote with that in mind.

  13. I think it’s so easy to find yourself in a bubble these days. Technology has the power to introduce new ideas and worlds unknown but that’s not what most people use it for. They instead surround themselves with ideas and worlds that support their own. Sometimes it not in a nice way but in a I hate what you stand for so I will band with others and complain about it. We listen to IPods instead of radios and fast forward through tv we don’t want to watch with our DVRs. The Internet and email make it easy to subscribe or unsubscribe to whatever suits us. I find myself in a bubble daily and see it in my son as well. My way to combat that is like you said….take a walk in the woods, get outside talk to neighbors. Connect! Great article and very on point to how I’ve been feeling lately!

  14. I blame it on reality TV…and I’m only half joking when I say that. I mean, look at all of the excess, all of the selfish behavior on these very popular programs. Every once in awhile the media will briefly pick up on a story of an ordinary person doing an extraordinary thing (the high school runner carrying her fallen competitor over the finish line is the most recent example I can thing of),

  15. The hardest part of popping the bubble is that there is pain and ugliness in the real world that most people don’t/can’t look at, so we pop one bubble for a slightly bigger bubble, but still surround ourselves with a protective layering of blindness.

    What I think you are talking about is being part of a community that cares and helps about the other people in it and in the world in general.

    Ironically (for the sake of this online discussion) is that the things that killed that sense of community the most are the television and the internet.

    There’s your real bubble, and I agree that we need to pop it. We think we can relate to the physical world or to our physical community by reading about it online, and we go as far as creating online communities to not have to participate in our physical community because there are things and people that we don’t like in the real world so we ignore it and stare into the phone when we’re on the subway or in a crowd so we can pretend it doesn’t exist anymore.

    Popping one bubble for a slightly bigger bubble is a great first step, but there are many, many more bubbles we need to pop as a society to reach anything close to self-actualization, and that all starts with us popping our own bubbles first.

    1. Obviously I feel differently. This is what online communities do:
      And as you can see from the commenters here, these same people are connective and caring in person too.

      Selfish, uncaring people are selfish people wherever they spend their time. We can have a chicken and egg discussion, but did YouTube teach those people to be asshole anonymous commenters? Or is there something in their lives that allowed them to think that it’s okay to be that way in the first place.

      1. As far as the online world, I think the absence of looking into the eye of the person you are speaking to has created an environment where some people feel free to say anything, hurtful, ugly or not. I have to believe that at least half if not more of those people had to say the same, in person, while staring eye to eye with the receiver, would hold their tongues. My problem (or maybe my over active imagination) is I DO imagine a face on the other side of the screen, which makes me think hard before I type something online. Even so I’ve unintentionally offended people and I’m not afraid to say “I’m sorry if I was hurtful. It wasn’t what I meant to do”. Call it my guilty conscience.

  16. It would be lovely to live in a bubble, and there are things I could try and do better (like recycle). But I can’t help but try and be aware of others while navigating store aisles, or traveling on a plane. I can’t not try to respect those around me. I would be that woman on the plane–that would be me stressed out for making life unpleasant for others.
    We never took rocks home from the beach or from the park. Sounds odd, but it was a little way to remind my son that other people want to come an enjoy them too. And if everyone took a few rocks from the trail in the park, then there would be no more rocks. Simple idea that he could grasp.

  17. I’ve taken a group of 8-9 year old’s to clean up a park before. They had so much fun picking up bags of trash in the 90 degree heat, they asked if we could do it every weekend!

    It’s easy for kids to be inspired, but harder to get the adults on board.

    Our life was thrown off kilter last week and as a result, we’ve received an onslaught of “help” the last few days – usually in the form of dinner magically appearing at our doorstep or hands picking up our children for us, so we can focus on the things we need to. The kids were amazed at first but now remark that we are loved and lucky to have so many that love us.

  18. A couple weeks ago, Tacy found a set of dog’s ID tags in the street. She brought them inside, picked up the phone, and called the number on the tag, reaching the vet’s office. She told them what she’d found and her phone number. When the owner called us, she made arrangements for pickup. She did all of this on her own, even though I was sitting right here in the kitchen.

    I was so proud I thought I’d burst. Kyle felt the same when he heard the story.

    The best part though, was that Tacy didn’t see anything extraordinary about what she’d done. It was the kind, compassionate, right thing to do, so she did it.

  19. I recently saw a child pick up a candy wrapper from the ground to put in the trash but before she could so so, her parent pushed the trash from her hand. “That’s not your trash to pick up,” she said.

    And yet. She was holding it. She was THIS CLOSE to throwing it away.

    I thought about where this child would be twenty year from now, in a world littered with other people’s “trash”, the voices of her mother, her guide, in her head.

    “… not your trash to pick up.”

    We say our children are the future, but so are we, as examples.

    Thank you for this post, wise woman. xo

    1. I hope that she grows up to say to her mother, “sure it is. It’s all of our trash to pick up.”

      One can hope?

    2. In the interest of defending the mother’s reaction a tad: I have told my kids (depending on the trash) not to pick up something because it was GROSS or sticky or half-rotted. My kids may be younger than the girl you describe, and we do pick up things like cans or wrappers. I just don’t want them in the habit of picking up truly nasty trash bare-handed. When we used to join a group to pick up trash in Sunset Park, we used gloves and shovels.

      My kids have also gotten us in to interesting interactions by loudly asking, “Why did the man throw his wrapper on the grass, Mommy?” Fun!

  20. Reading your previous post and this one, as well as Design Mom…makes me want to move to Europe. Which is sad to say, but true.

  21. ” I feel like I’m watching We The People devolve into some regressive caveman society founded on the principals of I The Individual.”

    I agree- selflessness is out of style. When people see it, some of them realize that they’ve lost the habit, but many more either don’t notice it or scorn it as weak. We’re a society, folks. There are no bubbles.

  22. There are bubbles I want (hello, man on the subway, I do not need your armpit in my face. Why hi there car on the freeway, please to stay in your lane)–but the bubbles that keep us from other people where it really matters are starting to weigh on me. I want so much for my boy to grow up caring about the people around him, about the world around him. I feel so much pride when he, at not yet 3, picks up trash he sees on the ground or goes up to a kid who is crying on the playground to give them a hug…all unprompted by me.
    One of my biggest goals as a parent is to not squash the innate caring that he has in him, and instead foster it as much as possible. And one of my goals as a human is to look to him and his open heart as a better way of living than as the cynical closed off adults that are all around.

  23. Your post sadly speaks volumes about this country. We no longer know our neighbors, nor do we care. I was having a conversation with a group of people about paid maternity leave (here’s my post: and received a lot of criticism to the effect of, “Why should my money go to something that doesn’t concern me?”

    Then my friend said something I’ll never forget. He said, “Hey, you know what? If you don’t want to contribute, then don’t be a member of society.”

  24. Thank you again.
    I was just pondering before last night’s excitement over at the DNC what I wasn’t seeing. Why a lot of my neighbors and friends are voting differently than I am? Am I missing something? After listening to Julian Castro and our FLOTUS and becoming inspired once again, I know I’m not missing a thing. We need to work together, help each other, and respect each other.

  25. Your words are so true. This is one of the reasons that we chose the private school we did for our children. It focuses on community and that we are all intertwined with each other and our world. They are taught to be stewards of the land and how to care for each other.

    I was picking up the kids one day and was up getting something out of Z’s classroom when Tim, the Sustainability Coordinator, stopped me to tell me something that Z did that really impressed him. On the second day of school, one of the new kids was crying and a little sad and Z came over and sat with her for quite some time, holding her hand and talking to her.

    I want to live in a world that recognizes empathy and compassion. A world that understands while we are different, we are inherently similar.

    My husband and I have always taught our kids to leave the world “cleaner” or “better” than we found it. We pick up lots of other people’s trash. Because as Rebecca said–it is all our trash.

  26. This message needs to be shouted, posted, written and read over and over.

    Because after all, “We the people…” starts with the word “WE”.

    1. I couldn’t agree more–it’s just too bad that so many people think that the “we” is not an inclusive “we” but rather a small group of entitled folks.

  27. My oldest daughter has already experienced the “why do you care about her, she’s a nobody” comments or the “leave it there; it’s not your trash”. I like to think that she cares about the “nobody” girl and the litter she didn’t create because of things I’ve taught her (or, better yet, things she was born with that neither I nor the world has robbed her of yet). I want her to hold on to these things but damn if society isn’t trying to strip them. Sometimes I want to simply walk around yelling at strangers, “Give a damn and give it nicely!”

    I want to shield my children by keeping them in the bubble. The bubble is comforting. It is safe. And it smells nicer in here than in my house with its bacon laden air. (Until, of course, I bring the bacon into the bubble). To let them leave the bubble is guaranteeing their corruption but I’m kinda also hoping that exposing them to the nastiness will build up their resistance and they’ll be contributors to making everything, well, better.

  28. you say it way more politely than me – I say people are just damn self centered. caught ‘in a bubble’ is so much kinder –
    For me – the biggest challenge is not to become self-centered myself, but rather to at least try to role model compassion in a world of people continually showing nothing –

    Most days, I am so choked up over the woman who comes to shuttle one of the students at our school while her very own son gets bused to the boys club for after school programming….I dont even know where to begin on that subject

  29. This. This is way I help renovate homeless shelters,help out at our local ‘mothers for mothers organisation’ and collect old bottle caps for recycling. Because I want my girls to get that message, that message that compassion, care and empathy for those who are not as fortunate as they are is not a bad thing. That it is in fact what makes us human.

  30. Oh, I have such strange emotions surrounding this very topic right now. But less about empathy and more on the general respect I think people have forgotten to practice with each other.

    My son is three and I want him to be polite, kind, empathetic and happy, but I feel so alone in this ambition. I’ve taught him to say excuse me, please and thank you, to wait his turn, to talk through problems without screaming or hitting (not that we’re always successful with these things). And he just gets bowled over everywhere we go.

    He’s literally pushed aside by other children (and a few too many adults as well). On the playground, at preschool, at the pool, at the Barnes and Noble train table. Wherever we go, he’s the kid standing aside, waiting desperately for his turn.

    It’s so hard to explain that not everyone follows the same rules, and sometimes you have to grab an opportunity instead of asking for permission. Ugh. I just hope I’m not making him submissive. I know, he’s only three and there’s plenty of time to learn. But there really is a fine line, between being polite and being a pushover. And yet, I don’t want him to behave any other way.

    It breaks my heart to see him standing at the top of the slide, waiting for countless older kids who climb up backwards and push him out of the way. I urge him to go ahead, to stand up for his right to slide down, and he just waits patiently. I guess I could learn a thing or two from this kid…

    1. You just described my older son to the letter. He’s six now and in first grade, and is having an easier time making himself heard, yet staying true to his character. What made all the difference was his preschool teacher. She was amazing in acknowledging the positive behavior (in all the children) and downplaying the negative. She made everyone feel like they mattered and were heard, which is all anyone wants anyway, right!?

  31. sigh. i have to confess that i struggle with some of this. i take garbage bags to parks when i hike and haul out other people’s trash. i volunteer my time with abused and neglected animals. i hold doors. i bring the wrapped toddler toys from happy meals when i travel to help distract children on the plane with me. i help out where i can.

    but. i do not have children. my choice, and that’s not going to change. i have extremely strong feelings about overpopulation. i find it appalling that you need a license to drive, but not one to breed. and i do not support anything that may promote having more children (like tax credits for addition children, for example).

    how is it not just a different bubble when you expect me to cover your work so you can leave early for time with your children? i don’t deserve to leave at a normal hour because i haven’t spawned? really? (sadly, at my last company, flex time was only for parents and the rest of us got to take up their slack.) how is it not self-centered to bring children into a world already overburdened with people?

    i agree that we are de-evolving into I the Individual, but i really think it’s because there are too many of us – the larger the group, the more savage it become.

    1. I think the point isn’t that people with children deserve flexibility at work and a little leeway out in public, but rather that we ALL should treat each other with the same level of respect and flexibility.

      I’m sorry you had a bad work experience. A person without children deserves the same flexibility to take time off from work for whatever reason they need. To take care of an aging parent, to go to the doctor’s office themselves, to run to the DMV, whatever. Just like the snippy waitress at the coffee shop deserves a tip and a smile, because you never know what that person is going through.

      It’s not about parents vs. non-parents. It’s about showing concern for another person’s well-being.

  32. Those are pretty great kids that give me faith in humanity. Mine like to pick up trash because I let them wear gloves and a pokey stick.

  33. Amen! I always stress to my kids that they are part of a much bigger picture. But I need that reminder every once in a while. Thanks, love.

  34. Thank you for this. I think popping our bubbles is a daily thing. If we aren’t conscious of the people and the world we live in on a daily basis, then before you know that bubble is back up. I needed this reminder. thank you.

  35. I like how you define (or don’t define) the bubble. There was a story circulating recently with an accompanying quiz asking if you lived in a bubble. A socio-political one. I, apparently, live in a bubble because I don’t drive a pick-up truck, drink soda or go to the movies on a regular basis. My husband supposedly doesn’t live in a bubble because he’s in the military, lived in a small town growing up and worked on a factory floor. It was such a stupid and arbitrary exercise in exclusion about crap that just doesn’t matter. Our hearts and the hearts of the amazing little people we’re raising – that’s important. I just wish there wasn’t so much emphasis placed on the external trappings and more placed on the impact you and the people you raise will have on the world and the people who inhabit it. Will they be remembered as being loving and kind and giving? Is anything really and truly “better” than that?

    1. Thank you Margaret, I’d love to see that story. I think of a bubble as a world in which you are the only one who matters. Everyone else is “other.” And therefore less deserving of our empathy, our compassion or even our attention at all.

      The comments on this post are inspiring me more than you know. Thank you all.

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