My new commute reminds me of an NPR story from several years ago about the lengthy commutes in large metro areas—even those with reliable and ubiquitous public transportation. The broadcast focused on the experiences of several Altlantans, who, like many of their neighbors, routinely spend two hours a day commuting. At the time, given my inordinately sensitive empathy gene, the broadcast alone was soul crushing—to spend so much time of one’s day, one’s life, frozen in traffic, like a character from Sartre’s No Exit who has no option but to endure the hell of that moment. (fortunately, we eventually get out of the car.) I imagined I was an Atlanta commuter. How I would cope? The hypothetical wasn’t encouraging.
We recently moved. Geographically, I’m closer to school. But the commute...
My predisposition to extreme hyperbole notwithstanding, the reality of the hypothetical above is worse than I could’ve imagined. Depending on the time, my commute varies from slow to paralysis. We should reconsider the modifying phrase "stop-and-go": “Stop. Continue stopping. Go a few feet. Stop…” It has neither brevity nor wit, but neither does the commute. I routinely look for other options that may be temporally and geographically longer but that keep me moving. It’s the stultifying paralysis that I dread, the paralysis and the wistful, sometimes bleak thoughts that follow. Down a rabbit hold or Dante’s vision of hell.
I could be mowing the lawn.
If only I had a driver (and wasn’t prone to car sickness).
Who thought strip malls and sprawl were a good idea?
Another drug store.
Another office park.
Another something else being built
X and Y are having an early evening glass of wine on the front porch.
I resent X and Y.
How lovely to be reading on the patio.
Gabriel and I need to finish that project.
I could be finishing the trim in the foyer.
Re-caulking the bathroom.
Buffing the hardwoods by hand.
Cleaning the toilets.
There are people backpacking the globe. Right now.
Of the estimated 40 million minutes I’ll live in my life, I’ll never get these 45 back.
One day, I’m going to die.
Perhaps it's silly, but It gets bleak, and I really struggle to stay positive. Worse, I’m always almost there. And then another accident, and another, or a poorly timed light, and some roadwork, and—inevitably—one final light, pegged to my arrival. Timed to irritate me. And there are no satisfying diversions.
Best case for me on my evening commute? About thirty-five minutes. Worst case so far is an hour and a half. I frequently take a convoluted route that resembles the spikes on an EKG more than the path a crow flies. But it keeps me moving; the illusion of progress is satisfying.
The irony, I usually relish my commute; it’s a little gift, an offering of some “me” time—to catch up on the news, listen to sports, shamelessly dramatize my favorite songs, embolden myself for the frenetic and hopeful chaos of the school day, and (in the evenings) de-process—reorganize my scrambled brain—at the dusk of another long one. But, in traffic—a nasty little metaphor for upward mobility or illusions of freedom, I crave people the most. It’s a paradoxical community of commuters who cannot, do not connect—unless to gain an advantageous spot, which prompts the universal gesture of, um, appreciation. It reminds me of the hoards on sidewalks in big cities, brushing shoulders with the next gal yet as isolated as me in my car. I wonder what game theory has to say about this.
But at the stop light the other evening—with my head (liquefaction having set in) absorbing into my palm, perched upwards by an elbow wedged into the door, and my disposition sinking to a new level of despair—I heard a horn blow, so acute and loud that it had to be in my immediate proximity. It was so vivid, I recall it like it’s present tense.
I jerked upright and quickly swiveled to my left. A woman in a neighboring SUV is signaling me to roll down my window. Normally, I’d assume she was indicating a problem—tail light is out; tire is going flat, I’d accidentally run into her lane or over someone. But this time I was alert and focused on her and this awkward interruption. Doesn’t she know that it’s impolite to honk or interrupt people despairing on the road?
Here’s a rough transcript:
I drop my window. She asks, “Are you ok? You look so sad. The way you had your head. It’s the holidays!”
I lie: “Oh, I’m fine. Just daydreaming.”
She points upward as if with sublime knowledge (“John the Baptist,” the travelling sage?): “It’s night time!”
Me: “[hrmph…] Yeah. Right!”
Satisfied that I’m ok: “Well, I just wanted to check on you. No one should be sad right now.”
Emotionally transformed: “I’m fine. Thanks for checking on me!”
Nothing that I intended to say came out correctly; I mumbled and bumbled my responses. I was thoroughly, pleasantly caught off guard.
While I might have lied at the beginning of our encounter, I now told the truth. From the light, I had about 30 seconds until I got home, ample time for a pleasant stream of consciousness to supplant the dreariness from moments before.
See, there is something profoundly transformative when people care for each other. Altruism is intuitive, not a mystery. Being good to others is kindergarten 101. Yet, if it’s so obvious, why do we struggle to do it? (I actually don’t think we do. We are generally a really good species! But, if you’re like me, we choose the person inside the car—the safe target.)
The transaction is simple. One sees other people, notices a need, and acts on it. No agenda. No ulterior motive. The other benefits from the recognition, the concern, and the action. In a moment, spontaneous and serendipitous, we become more than isolated commuters, the “Pendulum” of the Updike poem, retracing trodden steps through life.
The beauty of such an exchange? It’s apolitical, non-religious, and agenda free. Anyone can participate and all benefit. Perhaps it’s trite and a little sentimental, but kindness truly has profound effects. Being visible means that I’m accounted for, that I’m valuable. And the converse is true when I’m invisible. Only the most resolute among us function well in neglect.
If I’m the good Samaritan, my decent act feels good. Altruism begets altruism. It’s better for the individual. It promotes the health of the species. A hopeful reconsideration of Vonnegut’s submissive “So it goes.”
When we care for each other, we begin to recognize the innate value of all. Reflexively, we recognize our own value—as advocates and change agents, and capable of and worthy of love. Extending this line of thinking, people no longer exist in the abstract, and we become disinclined to regard them as ideas or statistics. As I interact with you, I flex my patience and empathy; that’s the best way to stave off atrophy and preserve my humanity. How easy it is for roles to be reversed. And once I make the leap from solipsistic isolation, stuck in my car right next to you but eons apart, to connection, I’m sitting with you at the table. The chandelier above me, too, a halo of light encircling me, saying “I’m here.”
It’s too convenient to live in the abstract. To pass a cursory glance to the traveler next to us in traffic. Sometimes, it's all we can do. It becomes easy to make assumptions, delegate, legislate, scream, fight, and speak for the divine. Looking you in the eyes, however, shapes my thinking. We create a new narrative, with a new lexicon. It’s not that I’m less inclined to postulate; you in my gaze necessitates a new set of realities and ideas. In seeing you, I see a potential me. And I discover the essence of human rights.
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