Expanding Our Monkeysphere

The terrorist attacks in Paris and elsewhere and the ensuing calls to block Syrian refugees from entering the US have resulted in much argument and pontification from the political sphere as well as on social networks, etc. As we read and think and respond, we sometimes struggle with our own natural knee-jerk responses and what we are called to do as Christians. As we approach the season of Advent and the celebration of the God who came into our world as a stranger, we are confronted with our own limitations and disinclination to go outside of our comfort zone. 

Last week at Percolate, we talked about how and why this happens. Why is it easier for us to relate to the victims in Paris than those in Beirut or Baghdad? Why is it difficult to grasp the humanity of those who are fleeing their homes? Why do we let ourselves get away with comparing real, suffering people with M&Ms?

It reminded me of an article that I had mentioned in a sermon a few years ago from Cracked.com called "What is the Monkeysphere?" (Language warning for those of you who want to read the original article). The article talks about research done by Robin Dunbar at the University of Liverpool who studied different primate species and discovered that brain size was related to social group size – smaller monkeys have smaller social groups, chimpanzees (with larger brains) have larger social groups (about 50). Human beings being primates, Dunbar looked at us and found that our brain size would predict a social group of about 150. This number became known as Dunbar's number and represents, not the people that we know at all, but those with whom we have stable social relationships, “roughly the number of people you could ask for a favour and expect to have it granted.” David Wong, the author of the Cracked article, calls this number the Monkeysphere.

Wong used this concept of social group size (monkeysphere) to talk about how we are limited in our ability to see some people as “real people.” Those within our monkeysphere are understood as 3-dimensional, with good and bad qualities, depth and nuances. But the farther outside of your monkeysphere you go, more you tend to see people as 2-dimensional – easily grouped or even dismissed or ignored.

This concept makes sense biologically and psychologically. We can’t physically care for that many folks or impact their lives and psychologically, we would be rendered completely helpless if we were struck with every tragedy around the world on the same level we’re affected if it’s someone in our monkeysphere. However, it also means that we have a hard time conceiving of the humanity and personality of anyone we might term “the stranger.” And (much to our dismay, if we really thought about it) the same is true for them. 

The idea of a monkeysphere works great for primates whose experience may only involve interactions within their own social group or with, at most, a few individuals or groups outside of their immediate circle. But as humans, we live in a society much larger than our monkeysphere. We consistently interact with those outside our monkeysphere, and since our society is so interconnected – our actions can have impacts far beyond even our direct interactions. But it’s hard for us to see that or even conceive of it. So we tend to stick with what we know.

The problem is that, as Christians, we cannot remain within our monkeysphere. The Jesus who said "I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ ...‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me." (Matthew 25:35-36,40) firmly identifies himself with those outside of our monkeysphere. The Jesus who calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves then immediately tells a story (the good Samaritan) that demonstrates that our neighbor is not the person inside our monkeysphere, but the one who is outside.

One of the flabbergasting messages of the New Testament and the incarnation is that God cares about us. But it’s not just that God cares about us. God also cares about all these other folks as well. Not just the people who are like us – look like us, dress like us, act like us, think like us - the people in our monkeysphere. God cares about all the people – even those that are hungry, thirsty, naked, strangers, sick, in prison, refugees, victims - and we’re supposed to too.

So the homework I gave to the folks at Percolate* was this: how do we do that? How do we go outside of our natural inclination to understand and identify with and care about those most like us? How do we open our hearts to those who are so unlike us? How do we expand our monkeysphere? 

*If you'd like to join the discussion, you can of course comment here or, better yet, join us at Java Monkey at 6:30pm on Tuesday, December 1.