Getting Trapped in Mary’s Room | World Challenge

Getting Trapped in Mary’s Room

Rachel Chimits
August 14, 2020

Acclimating to a life with limited human relationships is all too easy for some, especially during a season of social distancing, but is that healthy?

Frank Cameron Jackson, professor of philosophy, created the now famous scenario called “Mary’s Room” to demonstrate the limits of knowledge.

A brilliant young woman, named Mary, is a scientist but is living in a black and white room. Mary has never been outside her monochromatic room. She has investigated the world and earned her degrees via a black and white television.

She specializes in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the information there is about what happens when we see ripe tomatoes, the sun glinting off a car or step into the shade of a tree. She discovers just which wavelength combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this produces via the central nervous system the contraction of the vocal chords and expulsion of air from the lungs that results in the uttering of the sentence ‘The sky is blue.’

Her knowledge of the world could be considered intellectually ‘complete.’ What will happen, though, when Mary is released from her black and white room? Will she learn anything, or does she already have everything there is to know about the world?

Obviously, the answer is that Mary has a great deal to learn that she could’ve never acquired from a book or television or computer.

Mary in her monotone room might disagree with us, though. “I’ve learned all the facts about sight and colors and the physiological and psychological effect of them on the human brain. In fact, I know more than you do about these things. You tell me that you ‘know’ more about color than me, a licensed neurophysiologist? Fine. Prove it.”

Without showing her a color, how do we convince her there is more to understand?  

Avoiding Growing Lonely

This year, Mary’s Room has become many of ours. Stay-at-home orders have been issued, but we have been told that computers, video calls, phone calls will allow us to connect to people just as well as before when we could see them in person.

You will be alone but not really. The person on the other side of the Zoom call is practically there, just as if they were actually sitting in your living room.

Except they don’t feel entirely present.

Can these forms of remote communication actually connect us? If so, why do some of us feel terribly lonely or restless, exhausted by video chats where everyone’s face is far too close to screens and frustrated by phone calls with people who are obviously distracted, half their mind on the carrots they’re chopping. A thought experiment is taking place even now: how important are physical interactions really?

“My people-free desert during lockdown made me crave relationships, preferably with three-dimensional people,” Léa Köves noted. A OCCA Fellow and translator for Ravi Zacharias International Ministry based in France, she dealt with severe quarantine restrictions where travel over one kilometer was only allowed for state-approved reasons.

“I dare say that it [lockdown] has been an opportunity for all of us to learn something, especially in terms of how we relate to others. Indeed, when everything else stops, we’re left with this truth: we need community.

“And if we want to enjoy community, we might need to be intentional about it.”

Inertia is a law of physics for a reason. Without attention and careful refreshing, relationships will atrophy. Refusal to apologize for wrongs will lead to festering resentments. Our personal connections are truly labors of love.

Friendships, marriages, coworker comraderie all are uphill work, even at the best of times. The moment that an obstacle stands in the way of a relationship, like governmental orders to stay at home, a connection is that much more hard work to maintain.

Noticing the Type of Connections

Being intentional about community doesn’t only mean purposefully seeking it out; it also means having discernment with the people we bring into our inner circles and with whom we spend time. The temptation to go with whoever is most accessible or easiest to get along with is even greater when we feel like our options are limited.

The first book of Kings tells a story that warns about this. A young prophet is sent from the southern kingdom of Judah up to Israel to confront the king about his corruption. His instructions are strict. Eat and drink nothing in Israel. Don’t return by the way you came.

He obeys successfully up until the point where an older prophet approaches him with a different message ‘from the Lord.’

Gary Wilkerson explores the ramifications of this story, noting, “The words of Christian leaders carry a lot of weight, and so it was for the young man of God. The older prophet assured him, ‘You don’t have to continue in your hunger. You’ve done your job. It would be legalistic to stay in this rigid mode of obedience. It’s time to relax, to chill a little. Take it easy.’

“That’s actually the tenor of a lot of preaching today. We hear very few sermons on subjects like leading a holy life. Tell me, when did God ever change the path his people are to walk?”

The young man compromises and breaks the instructions that God gave him. “The next scene is tragic: ‘The man of God started off again. But as he was traveling along, a lion came out and killed him’ (1 Kings 13:24). Throughout Scripture, from Ezekiel to the New Testament, false teachers are described as ravenous wolves ready to kill and devour.

“This young man’s death was literal, while the lesson to us is spiritual: Spiritual deception from a corrupt community leads to destruction.

“Do not listen to false teachers who would have you believe God can be used like a genie to grant your wishes…. Friend, run from the Bible study that exists only to make you feel good. Avoid the relationship that takes you deeper into pleasure-seeking and away from Christ-seeking. Find a different faith community if yours labors to get you in the building instead of training you to take Jesus everywhere.’”

Having this kind of intentionality with our relationships can save us from a world of hurt and from being drawn far off the path to Christ.

Not Acclimating to Isolation

As we contemplate a continued season of life affected by COVID-19 and some degree of lockdown, we must not let ourselves become acclimated to isolation.

Humans are peculiar creatures in that, if we are left alone for too long, we become strange, cold and unsociable. It’s almost as if we forget what color the sky is or what shade of green trees hold. We can become Mary in her black and white room with her monochromatic television, growing pale and inflexible, not unlike the purgatory people of C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce.

Naturally, we must also exercise our relational discernment and avoid falling into conversations that are long strings of complaints or gossip.

Similarly, we should not allow ourselves to be seduced into religious connections that promise quick fixes to our problems or espouse unbiblical beliefs about God’s promises to care for us, especially in uncertain times like these.

We must not forget how to assess relationships and diligently care for the healthy, helpful ones, whether it’s by video calls or social distance walks or even hand-written cards. Perhaps this is an opportunity to meet our neighbors or help elderly relatives learn how to Facetime and Zoom.

However we do it, we must not lose sight of what relationships are in all their messy, technicolored glory.