Get off the intolerant train

  • September 6, 2007
I used to spend my time glaring at people who talked on their cell phones while I tried to sleep on the commuter train I ride to work five days a week. I would cringe when I heard someone popping their bubble gum or chewing it with an open mouth. I have to admit that sometimes I still do.
If I have learned nothing else from riding that train, I have learned two very important lessons. The first is that people, in their infinite uniqueness, have an unending assortment of strange, and often irritating, habits. The second is that while I think of myself as a considerate commuter, I can also be an intolerant person, and that intolerance usually comes back to teach me a lesson when I let it get out of control.

One evening a few months ago, a violent storm caused several trees to fall across the tracks, preventing our train from moving toward its destination. Prior to the train stopping, I grumbled internally about the people who sat around me, most of whom were chatting on cellphones. “Can’t they see I’m trying to sleep?” I thought to myself, resisting the urge to glare. I was in the midst of texting a friend to complain about my co-passengers when our train grounded to a halt. After some time had passed, an announcement came explaining the train would be stuck for awhile because of the trees.

Slowly, passengers began to talk together. We joked about other times that trains had been delayed. We talked about where we were heading and what we would be doing if our train got moving.

Minutes later, I pulled my cellphone out of my purse to call home and explain the situation. Just as I was hitting “send,” my phone let out the dreaded “battery low” chirp. Almost immediately, the passengers sitting around me offered me their phones, none of whom cared the call was long distance.

I looked around and noticed this was happening all over the car; strangers offering each other help in a time of shared helplessness — and to think, just five minutes before, I had been silently reprimanding many of them for being “inconsiderate.”

I also realized that the people around me had families, or at least someone who cared about them enough to wonder where they were. Many people seemed worried that by getting home late, they would let someone else down. I felt embarrassed that I had been upset and judged these people.

In an age of anonymity, personal space boundaries and political correctness, it is hard to break through barriers. Maybe judging each other is our way of interacting. Maybe because we don’t normally talk to people we do not know, we speculate about one another instead. We form stereotypes without even looking each other in the eye.

The trouble I’ve found is that when I do that, I not only waste my energy and end up irritated, but I am often proven wrong.

The gum-popper isn’t rude, she stopped to let me off the train ahead of herself. The loud talker isn’t arrogant, he gave his seat to an elderly gentleman.

If it’s so easy to see people’s flaws, it shouldn’t be too much harder to pick out a good quality or two at the same time. Looking for positives and avoiding making judgments is a good way to avoid humiliation, and it may even help us get some sleep after a long day of work.

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