conversations countryside and compassion

As a gag, a friend in Whitehorse equipped me with a surgical mask and latex gloves for my bus trip south. In theory, by wearing them, the implied threat of extreme contagion might win me a coveted open second seat.

As a gag, a friend in Whitehorse equipped me with a surgical mask and latex gloves for my bus trip south. In theory, by wearing them, the implied threat of extreme contagion might win me a coveted open second seat.

A little extra room is really appreciated for stretching limbs out on overnight legs of a long bus journey. Full buses, though, all the way through from San Francisco to Philadelphia made this strategy and any other one including the tried and true ploy of grandmothers using bag after bag of knitting to fill a second seat, all but useless. There were, as a result, some sour looking grannies.

Actually a good seat mate offers several advantages. One obvious one is that good conversations can definitely makes the kilometres go by more quickly. While traversing Kansas lengthwise on one particularly sweltering day last month I fortunately had a loquacious machinist originally from down near Bull Shoals, Missouri, as a seat mate. With the bus air conditioning broken down this was no small mercy.

Along with the emergency hatch in the bus roof opened for some meagre air circulation and a couple of Styrofoam coolers filled with iced bottles of water courtesy of the driver, his tales made the trip survivable. In a thick Ozark accent my seat mate shared his personal story of a California marriage breakup that now had him heading home, happier memories of a trip through the Yukon to pan for gold somewhere between Eagle and Chicken, Alaska, back in the 1980s and lamentations on the sad state of health care in his homeland. The trip sped by.

As well fellow travellers often look out for one another. At one late night stop, a bus passenger would have been left behind if not for a timely shout out to the driver as the wayward passenger sprinted after the departing bus. On another occasion a traveller from Mali, West Africa, who missed her connection in Pittsburgh had to rely fellow passengers, the driver and ultimately on my poor French to get her set straight onto another bus at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and a hoped-for rendezvous with her baggage in Baltimore, Maryland.

Scenes of bus-station solidarity, like folk rallying to assist a young mother with a rambunctious two-year-old and a mountain of baggage, really shouldn’t have been all that surprising. According to an article in this month’s Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, entitled Social Class as Culture: The Convergence of Resources and Rank in the Social Realm, the poor care more. Professor Dacher Keltner of the University of California-Berkeley, a co-author of the paper, stated in an Association for Psychological Science press release earlier this week that the folk from lower economic strata “give more and help more. If someone’s in need, they’ll respond.”

Keltner and his co-author’s study points to the strength of lower-class identity “greater empathy, more altruism, and finer attunement to other people.” One implication of this “is that’s unreasonable to structure a society on the hope that rich people will help those less fortunate.” Professor Keltner holds that “One clear policy implication is the idea of noblesse oblige or trickle-down economics, certain versions of it, is bull.”

Bus travel vignettes offer only small glances into other’s lives. Their hoped-for futures or pasts lamented reinforced my sense that most folk in just trying to get by are willing to extend a hand to others in need. Compassion is clearly as wide as the countryside I travelled through.

Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact

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