Redeeming the Commute

“Look carefully then how you drive, not as unwise but as wise…”

by Michael Krahn

Of the many aggravating aspects of our society, a daily commute to a workplace that is a considerable distance away must be one of the worst.

And the drawbacks go beyond just time wasted. A recent Swedish study claims that the risk of divorce goes up by 40 percent for commuters and the risk is the highest in the first few years of commuting. Another study finds that people who commute tend to have larger waistlines and higher blood pressure. An article in Slatemagazine entitled “Your Commute Is Killing You” expanded the possibilities considerably, asserting that, “Long commutes cause obesity, neck pain, loneliness, divorce, stress, and insomnia.”

These are obviously undesirable consequences and yet many Canadians still embark on a daily commute. According to the 2011 National Household Survey (NHS), roughly 15.4 million Canadians commute to work every day. That’s almost 45 per cent of the entire population of Canada.

A solitary venture
Of those 15.4 million people, about 11.5 million (74 per cent) are driving a personal vehicle. No surprise there, but there is another small detail to notice. Eleven and a half million people are driving but less than 900,000 (5.6 per cent) are riding as passengers. There are 11.5 million people driving to work every day and 10.6 million (92 per cent) of them are driving alone.

Consider first the ridiculousness of the situation. You’re stuck in traffic with hundreds of other people, but you’re all going in the same direction (hopefully!) and many of you are headed to roughly the same place. Even if you’re not going to exactly the same place, by the time you get to a bigger city there is accessible public transit. So why are so many people driving alone, clogging up the highways, and cursing the daily routine?

An uncomfortable conclusion
This question drags us unwillingly to an uncomfortable conclusion. Is it too much of a stretch to say that at the root of a lot of commuter travel is plain selfishness? We like our private space and our convenience, after all. We like to have everything our way and would be annoyed by anyone who might seek to change or rearrange what we have perfectly laid out.

We simply find it too irritating and inconvenient to share a ride with others. If we must be stuck in an environment not of our own making we figure we should at least have the luxury of perfectly ordering our small oasis in the middle of the asphalt desert.

I too have been guilty of this. I used to work with 200 or so other people in a factory. At that factory the majority of the cars in the parking lot didn’t need to be there since we all drove there from one of three nearby towns and mostly worked the same hours. So why didn’t more of us ride together?

Looking back I can see that my choice not to catch a ride with other workers was rooted in both selfishness and pride. It was something of a status symbol. It was those other guys who had to carpool, the ones who, in my mind at the time, were of lower status. This was foolish, selfish thinking, but maybe you’ve succumbed to it as well.

Share the ride
But take a moment to think about this again. Those hundreds of people you’re stuck in traffic with are heading to roughly the same place as you. Is finding a carpool to join really such an outrageous idea? It seems like it would be fairly easy to do. There are even sites like that will help you find one.

Of course this will require you to engage in relationships. Relationships are easy to avoid because relationships always involve a level of inconvenience and most of us have a very low tolerance for inconvenience—probably a lot lower than we should. But relationships are also critical to our emotional and spiritual wellbeing. Instead of thinking how inconvenient it is for you, think about how you might benefit someone else.

For the Christ-follower, every relationship should lead to or further develop discipleship in our lives and the lives of others. Discipleship is about following Christ, but it is also about calling others to follow Christ. We should understand that life as disciples of Christ is not a when-I-havesome-spare-time nor a when-it-is-not-inconvenient endeavour. Discipleship is how we live and what we call others to. This is what the Great Commission is all about. Relationships are great places to live this out.

False benefits
Time is something we spend, and what we’re buying with it may be an illusion. The Slate article I mentioned earlier also suggests that many people justify excessive commute times for the sake of a false benefit. “Many of us work in towns or cities where houses are expensive. The further we move from work, the more house we can afford. Given the choice between a cramped two-bedroom apartment 10 minutes from work and a spacious four-bedroom house 45 minutes from it, we often elect the latter.” But in doing this we fail to take into account the value of our time.

We often say we need to “make time” for this or that activity, but time is a zero-sum game. Time spent doing one thing is  necessarily time not spent doing something else. So while we’re doing all that extra driving that makes that bigger house affordable, we are spending less time at that house and, presumably, less time with our loved ones who live there. This is something we had to consider five years ago as I was changing jobs. We could get a whole lot more house in the town we used to live in than the one we were moving to. The trade-off was that the daily drive time would more than double. We chose a smaller, older house in the new town so that I could be within five kilometres of my new place of employment.

Time as stewardship
When the Apostle Paul instructs the recipients of his letter in Ephesus to, “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil,” he could have just as easily been saying, “Look carefully then how you drive, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the commute, because traffic is evil” to frustrated Canadian drivers. We are given time by God, and like every other good thing that comes from Him, He expects us to make good use of it as His stewards.

A steward is someone who manages the resources of another. As we are prone to do, we tend to use God’s good gifts too often for selfish gain. We turn material blessings into materialism; we turn the ability to exercise into a consuming obsession with fitness; we misuse, abuse and get addicted to all kinds of things.

The same is true of time—we misuse it in ways that bring glory and pleasure to ourselves without regard for the glory of God. Fundamentally, commuting time is, well, just time like all other time. Seconds, minutes, and hours. It is not a resource that can, without consequence, be misused, wasted, discarded or spent in ungodly ways. We are accountable for all of our time, and we are no less accountable just because we are sitting alone in our vehicles in traffic.

The silver lining
I’ve spent a fair amount of this limited space attempting to convince you that commuting is bad for you, that it has more ill effects than good, but all is not hopeless; there is a silver lining. I know not everyone can avoid a commute or rearrange their lives in such a way that their commute is reduced. And the writer of the Slatemagazine article is probably overstating things a little bit by implying that commuting is only and completely harmful.

It would probably be more accurate to say that negative effects are guaranteed not in all long commutes but in long wasted commutes. Time is a resource and resources can be used either wisely or foolishly. Since this is true, there is no reason to believe that this time cannot be redeemed.

So here is the silver lining: a lengthy commute offers solitude, and solitude is a neglected spiritual discipline. There are numerous examples of Jesus seeking out solitude either before or after particularly engrossing encounters. “To be like Jesus,” Donald Whitney says in his classic book Spiritual Disciplines of the Christian Life, “we must discipline ourselves to find times of silence and solitude. Then we can find the spiritual strength through these disciplines, as Jesus did.”

A commute offers solitude and in that solitude, if we make good use of the time, we can find spiritual strength. So if you find it impossible to eliminate or reduce your commute, here are some more ideas for making good use of the time.

Develop a habit of prayer
Prayer is the primary discipline Jesus practiced when He found himself in solitary places (see Matthew 14:23; Mark 1:35; Luke 4:42; Luke 5:16), and there are few more solitary places than while you’re alone in your car. Sure, you’re in a glass bubble and can be easily seen, but with the prevalence of Bluetooth technology you no longer need to worry that people will think you’re talking to yourself!

Talk to God. As a pastor I often forget how difficult it is for people to pray out loud. But sitting in your car with absolute certainty that no one else can hear you is a good place to start.

Engage your mind
As we’ve established, never before have so many people embarked on a lengthy daily commute, but never before has audio media been so accessible. The possibilities are endless, which of course means that for every good source of teaching, there are numerous easier options like turning on a local music station and chuckling at the predictably offensive conversations of radio DJs. This a great way to waste your time and set your mind on things below and not things above. But there are thousands of podcasts in the iTunes store and most of them are free.

Learn to sing
This last suggestion may seem a bit far-fetched, but I mention it because I have spent many fruitful hours learning to sing while driving. As with praying out loud, in the confines of your car you have no listeners or critics to worry about! You can really mess up—sing a wrong word or a wrong note—and no one will ever know.

I sing and harmonize well. This is due less to God-given ability than to hundreds of hours of singing while driving. My training ground was the driver’s seat, repeatedly listening to harmony-heavy artists like Canadian favourites Blue Rodeo. Listen to the song, sing the lead vocal; listen again, sing the harmony. Repeat.

Engaging our minds and learning to sing are good things to do with our time, but I still think that cultivating relationships should be our first choice if we’re seeking to redeem the commute, and I’m quite sure that many more of us could be doing this. We can cultivate a relationship with God regardless of whether or not someone is with us for the commute, but we’ll need other humans to cultivate human-to-human relationships.

So find some other humans to ride with. Converse, discuss, communicate. While you commute, commune. Talk to someone—to your spouse on the phone (hands-free of course), to a passenger beside you, to God in prayer. However you choose to use the commute, remember to heed Paul’s advice in Ephesians and remind yourself often to make good use of the time that God has given you to steward.

Michael Krahn is a pastor, writer and musician who makes his home in London, Ontario.


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