Saturday, July 13, 2013

Traveling Together

bumper to bumper traffic

It's mid-July, and millions of Americans are getting into their cars and heading off to vacation destinations along the nation's highways.

The other day, as I drove along on the crowded and congested "Interstate," I was reminded of what Law Professor Stephen Carter had to say about "traveling together" in his book "Civility."

In the mid 19th century there were no cars or Interstate Highways, but there were plenty of travelers; but back then, people traveled by rail and were fascinated with the railroads.  In fact, thousands of Americans arrived at their vacation destinations by taking trains, traveling all across the country by rail. 

However, railroad travel back in those days was quite different from what it has become today. Unless you were extremely rich, most people rode on trains that looked like "cattle cars" - unadorned boxes on rails, each one equipped with nothing more than rows of hardwood benches. 

In his book, Professor Carter observes that traveling together on the railroads worked as well as it did back then because people understood their obligation to treat each other well as they sat side by side, crowded together, shoulder to shoulder. 

In those days railroad passengers also purchased a little guide for proper travel behavior while riding the trains: The guide, "Politeness on Railroads" by Isaac Peebles, gave passengers some very practical directions like: "Whispering, loud talking, immoderate laughing, and singing should not be indulged by any passenger." Conductors were instructed to rebuke anyone who "indulged personal preferences at the expense of other passengers." 

The other day, as I drove along on the Interstate,  I thought about the radically different way we travel today. People travel in the isolation of their own cars, surrounded by and protected by metal and glass, everyone single-minded in the rush to get to their own individual destinations, and often treating fellow travelers rather rudely.

I drive on the six or eight lane freeways of Southern California - thousands of cars and trucks are speeding along at 75 mph. If the driver behind me thinks I am not going fast enough, I almost get run off the road.  He comes within a few feet of my back bumper, rudely forcing me to get into another lane to let him pass by. 

As I drive along, I see other cars weaving from lane to lane, cutting off other cars, so that they can travel faster than their fellow travelers and get to their destination sooner. 

As I drive along, I notice that many of my fellow drivers are wearing headphones - making calls, listening to music,  and although its illegal, "texting" as they drive - oblivious to any other cars traveling along with them on the road.  

As I drive along I think to myself: "This is an icon of life in our own day - chaotic, dangerous, each person out to get what he or she needs and wants, caring little about anyone else." And it all frightens me, because it seems like we are heading downward on a very slippery slope.

As I see it, if we are to survive as a nation or as a species, we all need to learn how to travel together.  The whole world has become a global village in which we are all crowded together,  sitting side by side and shoulder to shoulder - people of different races, different ideologies, different political agendas, different religions, atheists and theists. We are all sitting next to one another in an ever-shrinking world on this little planet earth. 

In order to travel together well,  we need to put aside the rabid individualism that has infected our culture and think again about our fellow travelers; those who ride along next to us as we make our journey through life together. Today, more than ever, we need to reclaim our obligation to treat each other well  and to rebuke those who "indulge personal preferences at the expense of other passengers." 

Maybe Isaac Peebles' travel guide, "Politeness on Railroads" should be required reading for all of us.

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