Many people when they hear the phrase Public Transit react with disgust or frustration, as though they were remembering someone who had wronged them personally. On the other hand, many praise its value for society (truly it is impossible to do without in larger cities).
Raised in a small city, I never used public transport. So when at the age of twenty three I moved into the “big city” suddenly I had an opportunity to use this widely discussed service. As an ex-hitchhiker I found it both effective and extraordinarily useful. True, there are a few situations for which transit leaves much to be desired, like trying to return home while lugging several bags of groceries. Otherwise, I was impressed by the fact that I could get within walking distance of almost every corner of the city, albeit not always in “good time”.
There is a second quality of using public transport in the big city that still makes a lasting impression upon me. Our communal transport is an unintentional source of gathering, a place where people who would have no other reason to come together, find themselves face to face, in conversation, and at least if only by proximity alone, sharing a mutual experience. Though there is much pain and discord, I have also seen many truly humbling acts of kindness during my frequent trips on the bus and subway.
Ironically, as population density increases, so does our anonymity. Public transit has the potential to be one of the last strong bastions of community between residents. I can’t help but feel a sense of camaraderie when I notice someone I know riding the same bus as me. There is an unspoken awareness of the fact of, “Hey, we’re in this together!”
The most poignant and urgent needs of humanity can be seen so plainly while riding the bus: The hunger and fatigue on the faces of those carrying overburdened bags of empty cans onto the bus, or the despair of a drunk and homeless man, riding only to keep warm, or the stressed and belligerent mother who may be using the only skills she learned in a broken home. In our offices, schools, and homes it is easy to bypass the poor, the needy. When we travel only from house garage to parking garage we need never brush shoulders with the homeless, with the working poor. On transit however, it is all but impossible not to encounter the suffering of the disabled, the despair of the addicted, the pain of those who have been mistreated or abused.
In this reality lies one amazing and awesome opportunity: every transit rider has the daily opportunity to reach out to someone who needs compassion, to offer a listening ear to a lonely heart, in effect to reach out in so many different ways with small acts of kindness to those who may otherwise receive none. True, many simply shove their earphones in or bury their attention into their cellphones, and pretend that the suffering doesn’t exist, but those who take this route become shrouded to their own humanity.
Their is a temptation we experience when we recognize the brokenness of humanity: we try to flee, doing everything to convince ourselves that we are different or somehow above it. In order to achieve this end we must close off our hearts, to allow our compassion to wither away. A psychologist who doesn’t recognize his own capacity for mental illness, will never have the proper insight to profoundly help those who come for aid. As a wise man once said, “But for the grace of God, there go I.” If I don’t see my own vulnerability to end up no different then the homeless or intoxicated person beside me, I am blind to the very reality of human existence and weakness, and thus I cannot be a light to the feet of my brother or sister.
On one hand we could look at all the inconveniences of public transit and lament why our fortunes have been so poor as to land us a bus pass instead of a new car, but on the other hand we may recognize that within our common transportation lives the riches of God’s kingdom: jewels, diamonds, souls, beyond reckoning and without valuation. Instead of seeing all the reasons why public transit has made our lives worse, we might instead look at the immense opportunities at how we might make someone else’s life better.