“Americans will put up with anything provided it doesn’t block traffic,” quipped Dan Rather. They have reason to be annoyed: a recent report finds that the average driver loses 42 hours a year in the bumper-to-bumper grind, while the U.S. Census Bureau finds that 86 percent of workers commute by car. And yet despite all these hours spent trying to navigate our cities—a trial that even Pope Francis suggests is “often a source of much suffering”—there is reason for hope. In our drive to change our commute, we need not lose sight of the many hidden benefits to be found behind a steering wheel.
Having worked for a decade in the Washington Metropolitan Area—considered by many of its inhabitants as “ground zero” in America’s traffic wars—I’m familiar with the indelible deprivations of commuting. In D.C. we obsessively study the art of traffic flows, travel routes, optimum departure times, all to shave even just fifteen minutes off the journey. Commuting for most Americans represents a hazard, an obstacle to overcome, in order to more effectively live the good life. Yet that is not the only way to see this daily ritual.
I’ve reflected more on the nature of commuting since moving to Thailand one year ago; a Bangkok commute—if one walks it—often requires navigating crowded streets full of food vendors in the morning and hawkers of cheap goods in the evening. Living off a street known for raucous partying, I encounter all kinds of unpleasant sights and smells as I leave my apartment each day—the “Big Mango” never sleeps. Only after several months did the women outside the ubiquitous massage parlors stop yelling at me and tugging at my clothes, perhaps recognizing that a guy in sweaty gym clothes often carrying large boxes of diapers might not be interested in their services.
Despite the fact that it takes place in a car, a typical American commute provides innumerable opportunities for intellectual, spiritual, and even physical development. The ease with which one can access podcasts, lectures, or language lessons makes the vehicle a classroom on wheels; the relative cloistering of the individual car offers a means for fairly undistracted periods of prayer. Long drives also afford moments to reflect on life or mentally and emotionally prepare for family at home. And of course there are those grip-strengthening devices—does anyone actually sit at home or the gym squeezing those things again and again?
The radio meanwhile presents both the bane and boon of life. Who hasn’t lost minutes or hours surfing through the channels for something worth listening to; yet whose heart hasn’t risen with excitement at the first sounds of an old favorite? Some might even admit our commutes become occasions to try and preserve our fleeting hold on youth, as we try to stay current with the latest pop music. Recently back in the United States, I was embarrassingly surprised by how comforting it was to hear the latest Taylor Swift on the radio. “Who is the latest ex-boyfriend she is singing about now?” I wondered.
Some of the most important events of our lives can happen on our commute, often using time on the road to make calls to loved ones or friends, discovering some exciting news—a new job, a new love interest, a new baby. On one such drive from work a friend persuaded me to tell my girlfriend of my deepening romantic convictions. With all the rashness of impetuous youth, I jumped at the invitation. Though my date’s response that night was less Hollywood than more dumbfounded surprise, she did eventually come around and agree to marry me—and it all began thanks to a conversation on my commute.
Moreover, commuting—even by car—invariably and often profoundly unites us to a particular place that broadly defines our home. We come to appreciate certain vistas, both natural and man-made. We become accustomed to certain roads and routes, appreciate the unique character of streets lined with monuments we recognize, businesses we frequent. We discuss with our family, friends, and neighbors how we get from one place to another, and in the exchange make those roads decidedly our roads. In this way, the 21st century commute almost imperceptibly facilitates our deeper connection to places, people, and our community.
Even ancient Scripture hints at the potential dangers and glories awaiting us on our commutes. Judah’s trip to Timnah to shear his sheep, described in Genesis 38, provided the opportunity for his daughter-in-law Tamar to seduce him; a bizarre event, though ultimately the source of a direct ancestor of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus Himself branded truths onto the hearts of two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Most famously, St. Paul’s expedition to Damascus, a trip foreboding imminent threat to the early Church, ended with the most notorious of Christian persecutors on his knees before the glory of the risen Lord.
Whether it’s a five minute jaunt from house to barn, or the two-hour trip traversing car, bus, and subway, every commute, like all things human, is a universal experience with potential, if often overlooked, metaphysical dimensions. Though our commutes quickly degenerate into exemplifying the worst of the human condition—anxiety, anger, and antipathy towards our fellow men—they are one of the most consistent, most universal means of human socialization. There’s a reason almost everybody, regardless of class or creed, can find common ground discussing traffic and ways to get around.
By all means, let us consider methods and means to improve our commutes, cultivate public spaces that promote more humanizing forms of travel, and limit the ecological and aesthetic damage of our car-crazy culture. Yet in the interim our commutes present us choices beyond opting for the highway or rural route. It’s about whether we, like those in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, allow our commutes to become our daily trip through hell, or a chance to be “surprised by joy” going up Headington Hill.
Casey Chalk is a writer living in Thailand.