The Wheels on the Bus

May 24, 2013

Go round and round. Round and round, round and round.
The wheels on the bus go round and round. All through the town.

Don’t you love the songs of childhood, when honesty, innocence and discovery were the classes of life, and the smallest encounters meant the grandest of stories?

Presently, as I type this, I am spinning along the eastern coast of New Zealand on a bus driven by a wonderful driver named Steve. Steve is talented. How do I know? I’m on the side closest to the ocean and he hasn’t nudged a guardrail yet. (wink) Plus, he’s teaching us about the local language and scenic spots along the way. So many stories woven into the land.

That takes me to mine. You see, the bus has taught me a few things as I travel all over this epic countryside. Like those spinning wheels carrying passengers to new ports of call, our lives and our exchanges with one another spin into new conversations and new connections. When “trapped” on a bus together over a long distance, you see the sleep patterns, restlessness, scenic interests and snacking habits of others. It’s a fun exploration, if you welcome it.

Spinning deeper, you also find out a lot about your comfort zone, your humming voice of judgment and your ability to (pardon me) “roll with it.” Now, this can either take you into a tail spin of increasing frustration, which I witnessed. Or, it can spin you toward personal growth. Let me share an example:

The only seat on a city bus was next to a man who looked quite haggard, with unwashed hair, the permeating smell of old cigarettes and an overstuffed grocery bag. If I chose to remain standing that would have been, in my mind at least, shunning this man unnecessarily. I’m glad I sat down. Turns out that he was very nice, and I learned about cycling and his family. And that was just our brief exchange before he hopped off the bus. I had to ask myself, “What in me made me hesitate?” Petty self-righteousness, fear of cooties or, perhaps, a lack of willingness to shut my eyes and open my heart. Good lesson.

From that moment on, I made it a point to do an empathy scan on the people around me. When a woman recoiled at a man who smelled like wet cats on a very rainy day, I wondered if he was caring for orphan kittens, visiting his mom’s place to help out or heading into the city for promise of a new job. (Sidebar: I ran into him later. Turns out he was going from place to place and hard-pressed to buy a cup of coffee.)

It’s not always the people who seem to be having a rough financial go of it. I saw a well-put-together young woman who held up the bus (as I myself had done on several occasions figuring out where I needed to go) and got a few glares from passengers. I imagined she may be excited about her first job out of college, feeling a bit frazzled after a troubling conversation with her partner or simply overslept after cleaning the house to prepare for a surprise visit from brother on leave from the military. (Sidebar: Turns out she left her wallet at home, her bus pass expired and she just needed a few of these coins they call dollars.)

Empathy is the great equalizer. It calms our judgmental side, exercises our compassion and lets us use this funny thing called an imagination. It also pushes us to grow.

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