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Lessons in Transit

This morning was a fairly ordinary morning on the bus.

Riding the bus has taken some getting used to for a prairie boy accustomed to wide open spaces, and driving everywhere and anywhere at the drop of a hat. I am not used to having to wait to get anywhere I want to go, and I am certainly not used to being squeezed like cattle into a bus or standing less than a foot away from a total stranger for forty minutes, both of us desperately pretending to look anywhere but at each other. I am not used to standing in the rain on a cold Vancouver morning while three buses blow by because they are full, and I am not used to taking three hours to warm up after the process described above.

I am also not used to the silence, and the sense of disconnectedness that I feel on a bus which is literally crammed full of people.

Some friends from school did an informal survey the other day, and discovered that out of the 10 people occupying the area of the bus they were sitting in, nine were hooked up to some form of electronic gadgetry (cell phones, laptops, iPods, you name it). I’m sure that I am not the first to notice the peculiarity of the phenomenon of large numbers of people occupying a small space resorting to any and all means possible to avoid talking to, or even acknowledging the presence of each other; however it struck me again this morning, especially when someone tried to change the situation.

We were almost on campus, and waiting at a stop light. There was the omnipresent dull droning of half-muted music leaking out of the innumerable headphones, and everyone was undoubtedly longing to escape the cramped confines of the bus. It was utterly silent (except for the aforementioned headphone leakage) when all of a sudden the bus driver starts talking into the microphone:

I just thought I would take this moment, you know having a captive audience and all, to leave you all with a thought for the day. May you graduate to the level of your highest thoughts.”

And that was it. Undoubtedly you are curious as to what such a declaration might exactly mean—I confess that I remain perplexed as well; however, what caught my attention was not the content of the bus driver’s unsolicited philosophical interjection, but the response of the passengers. Immediately after he was done, the bus was filled with snickering or outright laughter, combined with the knowing and condescending glances of the intelligentsia on their way to UBC. “What a nut-job” I’m sure many were thinking; “Who does he think he is?” “Just shut up and drive the bus—save your ideas for someone who asks for them.”

I’m not sure what our bus driver meant—maybe he was just making fun of us!—but I couldn’t help but wonder if he was just trying to play some small role in making the morning commute a more human procedure. I’m sure he sees countless self-absorbed university-types march onto his bus every morning, headphones in one ear, cell-phone in the other—maybe he just gets tired of it. Maybe he would like it if someone talked to him. Maybe he thinks that 60-70 people crammed into a tight space, all avoiding eye-contact or conversation with each other is abnormal! Maybe he was just trying to be a genuinely warm person, and wish his fellow human beings a pleasant day or give them something to think about. Maybe he thought that human beings ought to be more than little isolated islands running around, desperately trying to avoid each contact with each other…

Even though I didn’t really understand what this bus driver said or why he said it, it brought a smile to my face. I am undoubtedly guilty of romanticizing the experience, but I imagine him doing his small part in attempting to somehow unify his passengers, directing them away from their iPods and cell-phones, and toward a shared vision of some kind, even if he didn’t quite know how to articulate it, and even if it was only for the briefest of moments. We have so much stuff to distract us from each other—it was nice to be reminded that we are not meant to be islands, and that we do not need to be enslaved by the technological walls we put up between each other.

Several years ago I read The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky, and the following quote came crashing back into my consciousness today (hard to believe it was written almost 130 years ago, before iPods, cell phones, internet…):

Some claim that the world is gradually becoming united, that it will grow into a brotherly community as distances shrink, and ideas are transmitted through the air. Alas, you must not believe that men can be united in this way. To consider freedom as directly dependent on the number of man’s requirements and the extent of their immediate satisfaction shows a twisted understanding of human nature, for such an interpretation only breeds in men a multitude of senseless, stupid desires and habits and endless preposterous inventions. People are more and more moved by envy now, by the desire to satisfy their material greed, and by vanity… Do you really think that such men are free?

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great thoughts Ryan. Keep writing.

    Last week our bus driver thanked us for traveling with him, and left us with this thought:

    “If anything about today’s service has failed to meet your expectations, then we kindly suggest you lower your expectations.”

    January 25, 2007
  2. Dave Chow #

    “No Person Is An Island”

    There certainly is something about riding the public transportation system. It is somewhat akin to riding in an elevator – many sociologists have had fun studying the human dynamics of those particular situations.

    How does one interact with another person in a place where one knows that they are there but for a very brief time?

    In the case of elevators and as Ryan aptly put it in his Lessons In Transit, it can be awkwardly silent. We’re not used to the silence, and the sense of disconnectedness that comes with being somewhere literally crammed full of people.

    I bet Neil Postman has a few things to say about how our fixation with technology has not only helped us, but has certainly hindered us as well.

    It’s ironic that a bus filled with MP3 and IPod users (I’m one too) would consider themselves a “community”, through their purchase of a certain medium, and yet, while on a bus, can’t, won’t or are unable to interact with their neighbour. How weird is that? Paradoxical? We, who are social creatures, craving community, relationship and interaction, also despise having to come out of our “comfort” (or selfish) zone in order to interact with our neighbour?

    For some of us, it takes guts. For some of us, it takes energy. For my children, it just takes an opportunity to get some words broadcast, and have an active, and temporarily captive audience.

    I’ve seen my children engage in conversation with people on the bus, SkyTrain and SeaBus. It’s forced me out of my shell (do I actually have one?) to interact with those around me. What a blessing. Our little children will lead us. How refreshing.

    So often, we are the teachers of our children – we model, we correct, we instruct. How often we take for granted our own teachers, small as they may be, who are still unhindered by so many social conventions in our culture, and are open to the wonder our world, and neighbours hold. So, once in a while, let’s be open to wonder, and others, as we seek to be neighbours with one another. Even if we only have a couple moments with others, let’s engage. Let’s enjoy each others company. Let’s be involved. Let’s live.

    “All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated…As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come: so this bell calls us all: but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness….No man is an island, entire of itself…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” John Donne

    January 26, 2007
  3. Hey Dave, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’ve had a few of those moments myself – where my kids force me to be more social than I would otherwise be inclined to be. You’re right, it’s a combination of sad and beautiful – sad that kids have to show us what normal is, and beautiful in that we see a powerful kingdom principle at work, that of the weak leading (shaming?) the strong.

    As to what Neil Postman might think of our fixation with technology? I shudder to consider it…

    January 26, 2007
  4. jc #

    I am not really sure if I follow here. I am one of those people, if I am ever forced to use public transit, who would be listening to the headphones, avoiding eye contact, and hoping to avoid conversations with the people I am commuting with. I am not usually the one to start conversation with people I come into contact with at the grocery store lineup or on airplanes. I prefer to listen to my mp3 player or read a book. What exactly is wrong with that?

    I finished Brothers Karamazov the other day. I am glad I had it on audio because I would not have made it through otherwise. I read it on the recommendation of a friend. I do not know how I am going to get her back for this one.

    January 26, 2007
  5. The main point of the post was to discuss what I perceived to be a widespread sense of indignation towards what amounted to a relatively simple and well-intentioned gesture. I did not mean to suggest that individual activity in transit is wrong – I certainly do my share of reading on the bus, and I wouldn’t begrudge anyone their right to make themselves miserable listening to Dostoevsky…

    January 27, 2007
  6. jc #

    Well then, I kind of sensed a sort of Marxist alienation theme in that last post. I guess I missed the point there. I could only guess why your fellow students snickered at the bus driver. Maybe with the ideas of postmodernism running rampant in university then the students have lost trust in there own and others ideas and thoughts. I always hear students saying “the more I learn the more I realize I don’t know anything” or something to that effect. It does seem that the media now despises intellectuals and public figures who hold firm positions. Philosophers who have entire system of epistemology and metaphysics laid out are despised and ridiculed as arrogant. Whereas those who are existentialists and claim an end to reason are praised. Political figures who have firm principles and claim that right is on their side have effigies burned of them while those enlightened folks that adhere to the pragmatism or issue of the moment are praised by the media. But I don’t know if that has anything to do with why your friends on the bus snickered.

    January 27, 2007
  7. Dave Chow #

    Ryan, thanks for your honesty on your blog. I appreciate the dialogue we can have that is informative, thoughtful, and redeeming. Hopefully all we share isn’t always a critique of others (or just of you, our blogger), rather observations of life with a shot of self-critique mixed in (for the rest of us responders, responding to your openness.) We all fall short…

    I guess I have sensed a “listen to me,” or “what about my opinion?” more than a “that’s an interesting perspective.” Let’s create space for thoughtful reflection, which is one of the purposes for this blog, isn’t it?

    January 27, 2007
  8. I’m reasonably certain that the reaction to our beleaguered bus driver was not the fruit of a comprehensive postmodern theoretical analysis of the situation, although I suppose it’s possible. I think they were just being arrogant and uncharitable.

    And not to worry, no Marxist alienation going on here…

    January 27, 2007
  9. jc #

    how can you be certain in this postmodern world of ours?

    January 27, 2007
  10. Dad "H" #

    Well I think your bus driver was all of what you said after his statement. It’s all in the interpretation of the individual. Like the statement “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” If I were on that bus I would have thanked the bus driver when I got off. Such a profound statement to remember, “May you graduate to the level of your highest thoughts”. What was each person on that bus thinking just moments B4 he made that statement. Positive or negative thoughts. I sure hope they were psoitive.
    Son, I enjoy reading what you write it sure makes me think and unfortunately with my grade 12 education am lost 99% of the time but I sure can relate to the bus driver. The message I got out of his statement was to be positive in life, think about trying to be better in life and respect another persons time and space.

    January 27, 2007
  11. m #

    (I discovered your blog via Mike Todd’s, whose blog I discovered via the Resonate Soapbox, which I stumbled on in my search for emergent thinkers.)

    Thanks for this post, which I have shared on my own blog. I am an avid transit user who shares your sentiments and observations about the disconnectedness of commuters because of how they want to achieve a sense of private space (whether through electronics, or even reading something mindless like the 24 or Metro), which often appears to absolve them of any sense of responsibility to the ppl around them. Can you tell that I can easily get into a rant about this!

    The bus driver has got some plucky personality, nerve and a mind of his own. I am almost certain that what he said is a way to deal with “the smallness of the human race”, esp. given the irony that ppl are supposedly going to school to be enlightened. Haha, he’s entitled to be passive-aggressively critical … he’s certainly onto something!

    January 27, 2007
  12. m,

    Thanks for dropping by – it’s always good to discover the circuitous routes we take to get to each other’s ideas. I hadn’t thought about the irony of this little drama taking place on the way to a place of “enlightenment” – although at times I’m pretty cynical about the suitability of the word “enlightenment” as a descriptor of what goes on at universities anymore…

    January 27, 2007
  13. Hey dad, thanks for your comments. I think you’re right, the bus driver was probably just trying to communicate a positive, uplifting message of some kind. I thought about thanking him, but I was crammed in at the back and I had to get off out the back door. I gave him a wave as I walked by the front, but I don’t think he saw me…

    January 27, 2007

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