Can we share more than space?

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Tomorrow morning commuters across the country will read the news about Gary Speed.

They probably already know some of the story, but the established press, the disposable freebies, the iPad-enabled newsstands and reading over a neighbour’s shoulder will bring us all a little closer to the full tragedy of his death.

And yet only the tiny minority might express any reaction or emotion to it for the length of their commute. Sure, we’ll start talking once we’ve arrived in the office. It may not amount to the sincerity of mourning, but at least in the workplace there’s a semblance of sharing. In a commuter carriage we share silence.

In the UK depression affects 1 in 5 older people and British men are three times as likely to commit suicide as British women. Gary Speed’s death, the nature of it – suicide by a man respected in his field at the top of his profession – has caused shockwaves and, if these statistics are to be believed, has no doubt hit a very personal nerve among many people across the country.

I find it disconcerting that strangers will come together on occasions to mourn, to protest, to celebrate, but strangers brought together by this particular circumstance do not. The commute can be a lonely place, made lonelier still by the constraints of etiquette. Or is this just my experience?

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No place for humility

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Are you the worst version of yourself on your morning commute? Not every day perhaps, but on those days when tourists are dithering at the gate or the traffic is particularly bad or you’ve decided that today you would get that seat, dammit.

There’s something about how we exist in our commute that is inherently selfish. We are not expected to engage with the people around us and those who commute by car are prevented from doing so by their environment. On the commute, there is no such thing as community*.

I therefore, the prisoner for the Lord, appeal to and beg you to walk (lead a life) worthy of the [divine] calling to which you have been called [with behavior that is a credit to the summons to God’s service, living as becomes you] with complete lowliness of mind (humility) and meekness (unselfishness, gentleness, mildness), with patience, bearing with one another and making allowances because you love one another. Be eager and strive earnestly to guard and keep the harmony and oneness of [and produced by] the Spirit in the binding power of peace.

Ephesians 4: 1-3

In this passage in Ephesians Paul exhorts us as individuals to take responsibility for our actions and behaviour to reflect harmony (or shared ‘oneness’) in the church as a body of people.

Well there hasn’t been harmony in the church for a long time. And in more recent years, as pressure points such as women’s ministry have become more accepted in the mainstream, you’d have to search quite hard for oneness between individuals, groups and denominations.

But what Paul seems to be saying here is that if on a personal, purely individual, level you demonstrate humility, have compassion for your neighbours and all of these high ideals, rather than worrying whether everyone else is achieving them, we would go some way to demonstrating oneness as a community of Christians.

I don’t know about you, but I find that communities (especially churches) are a hotbed of mote-checking, neighbourhood-watching, panopticon behaviour, where individuals are more concerned with others’ gifts of the spirit than their own.

Meanwhile on a daily basis, people who commute are part of a community that is built upon the precedent of the individual. There is a oneness characterised not by behaviour but by intent: commuters all want to get to work or home with a minimum of time and hassle. Sadly the unspoken etiquette elevates survival above compassion.

Maybe we only notice we’re the worst versions of ourselves, as we barge through the commuting crowds elbows akimbo, because we aren’t distracted by the individuals around us? Maybe we are actually the worst versions of ourselves when we comment loftily on others’ lack of humility, not recognising the irony of doing so.

Perhaps if we practiced what Paul preached in our commuting hours, we could learn how to translate that into the other hours of the day, when the importance of the individual makes way for the importance of teamwork.

Or maybe I’ve read Paul all wrong…

* Interestingly the ‘comm’ part of both words means ‘together’ but within 2 different contexts: ‘community’ expresses the idea of bringing people together as one, while the word ‘commute’ stems from bringing together several payments into one; the ‘commutation ticket’ being the early manifestation of the modern season ticket.