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?