Columns 2017

We create tiny worlds to escape the “others”

I grew up in a very insular place. For the first ten years of my life, I thought the pope ruled the world and the president ruled America for him. I went to Catholic school from pre-kindergarten through college. I took four years of Latin figuring that would make me bilingual – which it would have if I lived in the Vatican.

When I was in the 8th grade, I won a Voice of Democracy award from the state’s VFW for an essay I wrote. The award ceremony was held at a Protestant church. I got hysterical. I refused to walk into that church until my mom brought me to the rectory and the priest told me that going into a Protestant church would not automatically condemn me to hell.

When I was in 4th grade, my best friend developed appendicitis while we were at school. She could barely make it down the stairs when the recess bell rang. I helped her home and her parents called the doctor who told them she needed to go to the hospital for an operation. This was a huge deal back then. No one had health insurance. Your parents paid in full. However, in Grace’s case there was no question about the urgency of the situation.

But my friend was not going to any hospital until her mom got the parish priest to come over and bless her so that if she died, her fourth grade soul would not be condemned to hell for something she didn’t even know she’d done.

My neighborhood, called Ducktown, was our whole world. My mother’s social life revolved around the Mary Help of Christians Sodality, my dad’s around the Knights of Columbus. We were in church almost more than we were in school. We made mass every morning of Lent and evening services every day in May. The rest of the world was a distant echo that I would vaguely glimpse through the newspaper as I turned the pages to get to the comics. But that world I saw in the paper didn’t feel real to me. What felt real was Italian accents; names with more vowels than consonants; nuns who played baseball with us in the schoolyard; and Msg. Vincent sticking his head out his bedroom window and threatening to dump water on us as we played in the alley because we were disturbing his nap.

Eventually, the outside world made its way into my solar system and the innocence and simplicity of those days were shed. I learned about other people and other places, other religions and other customs

Back then, there were limited channels for communicating or expanding your worldview. Many of us thought that once the Internet became so ubiquitous with its millions of sites offering different religions, ideas, ethics and customs, the world would become more united because we would get to know each other. But sadly, just the opposite has happened.

The Internet has just become a series of isolated communities where people of like minds gather to shake their heads in wonder at the “others”. Instead of using this resource to expand our horizons, we’ve used it to narrow them down so far that there is little to no room for movement. We go only to those websites that reinforce what we already believe. We have no truck with those who don’t believe as we do and make no attempt to understand their point of view. Instead of creating a world where we all can gain some understanding of how others think and believe, we’ve shrunk our world to an incredibly small group of like-minded individuals.

I am as guilty of this as the next person. I realize the websites I visit all reinforce my already held beliefs, whether that’s about the intelligence of dogs or the meanness of the Tea Party. And that’s wrong. Take a look at the names of the people who have created what made America great. They are names that come from multiple nationalities and races. They are names that come from different ethnicities, religious beliefs and ethical systems. The only thing they all have in common is that they are Americans.

We all need to start making a concerted effort to learn what others believe, and why, if we are ever to overcome the suspicion and distrust that separates us. If we don’t, we just become another version of the insular world in which I was raised, one that exists on the Internet but is no less confining for its expanse. It’s just the Ducktown of my youth played out online.