In Voltaire’s satirical novel, Candide, he begins the novel in a castle in Westphalia. It is a joy-filled castle where the young Candide is taught by the philosopher Pangloss, a man who believes that “there is no effect without a cause” and that they reside in the “best of all possible worlds.” Voltaire intends to use the novel to instruct his readers to understand that a philosophy of optimism is a dangerous way to live, and shortly after the beginning of the novel, a series of ridiculous calamities come down on Candide and all of the people in his life. By the end of the novel when Candide and his surviving band of friends are working to build a little farm, Pangloss, who has spent most of the novel in horrific situations which should have ended his life many times over, still argues that they are residing in the “best of all possible worlds.” He continues to argue that all of the horrible things they have endured has led them to their little commune, a commune that they are expending blood and sweat to create. Even after everything he has experienced, Pangloss maintains a painful optimism that even the strongest amongst us could not begin to promote.
And yet, how many people do we know who are stuck in a bubble, believing that the world they are living in is the “best of all possible worlds”? And how many more are perfectly content with staying in the bubble they have created for themselves? It doesn’t matter one’s socio-economic status, political affiliations, geographic location, or family history. I’ve known people of many different backgrounds who have been plagued by a “Panglossian” view of their little corner of the world. It is a view that leaves them trapped in limited experience, narrowing their world view.
While I don’t remember this at all, my mom has mentioned on more than one occasion that my sophomore English teacher, during a parent-teacher conference, discussed how impressed she was with the different world view that I brought into her classroom. In a classroom full of classmates who had lived in Wyoming their entire lives, I was a California native who spent her earliest formative years growing up between 7 and 8-mile in Detroit, Michigan, and had most recently lived in western Illinois, two hours from Chicago and a short drive from both Wisconsin and Iowa. I had spent parts of my childhood traveling across the Canadian border to visit grandparents and traveling everywhere from Texas to Washington to visit my dad’s large extended family. But none of those things made me better than my classmates. It just meant that my worldview was unique. And it was a worldview that continued to evolve when our family moved from the populous Midwest to the wide open West. Wyoming was unlike anything I had ever experienced. I learned about Native Americans and reservation life. I learned about hunting and the role that guns play in western life from my peers. I learned about conservation while exploring the rugged beauty that is the Rocky Mountains.
In short, I started learning an important life lesson that I continue to learn over and over again: We don’t know what we don’t know until we step out of our comfort zone and let people show us.
It is a lesson that I continue to learn into adulthood. Spending first semester junior year in London and traveling around the continent and British Isles opened me up to problem solving and understanding that sometimes the best way to get along in a foreign country is to show a little humility. For me and my travel companions that included using minimal French phrases while in Paris and Calais, profusely thanking an Italian man wearing a Gay Pride t-shirt when he rescued us from getting thrown off of a train in Italy, conversing with a pair of Mormon missionaries from Texas who helped us read signs in Munich, and patiently sitting through a Q&A with a group of German high school students who insisted on us giving them our thoughts on Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton. And that was all before our semester began!
And while I had to endure a series of childhood disrupting moves and a short period of international travel to learn those lessons, we don’t have to travel to the other side of the globe to open our worldview. If we live in a city, we need to spend some time in rural America. If we live in rural America, we need to spend some time in the city. We need to provide those opportunities for our children. We need to read books and more books, and finish them even if we don’t agree with the author’s premise. We need to make ourselves uncomfortable, putting cracks into our belief that the life we’re living is the only and best way to live life. Is that a scary venture? Yes! But I believe that the alternative is worse. Our inability to walk in another’s shoes continues to feed the beast of division that appears to be growing exponentially in this country.
Maintaining a Panglossian view of where we live allows us to ignore the realities of our fellow citizens. It allows us to see the poor as lazy, racial inequalities as a thing of the past, and creates an unbending tunnel vision when offering solutions for issues such as immigration.
Leaving the metaphorical Westphalia requires humility. It requires us to admit that we don’t know everything and it requires a desire to learn what we don’t know. It requires us to acknowledge that while we may believe that our world is the “best of all possible worlds” for us, it is far from a flawless utopia with no need for improvement. It requires us to realize that other people, cities, states, and even countries might have good ideas that we should adopt and adapt to improve our lives. If we recognize that, we can respond to the Panglosses in our life in the same way that Candide responds at the end of the novel: “All that is very well…but let us cultivate our garden.”