My commute home from work usually takes about an hour, door-to-door. Sometimes the train is running a few minutes late and it'll be an hour 10 minutes, but it's not usually more than that.
Yesterday, my 5:35 train left the station on time, due to arrive at 6:07. After about 25 minutes it was clear that we were running late, a suspicion that was confirmed when the train came to a complete stop two stations before mine. There was no announcement at first.
I was in the immediate vicinity of four others: to my left sat a man totally engrossed with the allegedly unacceptable job done by the crew that came to clean his pool last week (I'm good at eavesdropping). Across from us were two completely normal looking men their 40s, both listening to music and out of tune with the world, and a woman of similar age engrossed in a pile of magazines.
One of the men sitting across from me received word via an email that a man had been struck and killed by a train at the station ahead of us and shared the news with our local group. This is why we were stopped; soon after the man had informed us of what had happened, an announcement explained that we were stopped due to "police activity." Nothing else was said.
We happened to be stopped in a place with no internet service of any kind, so the email (that the man must have received before we were stopped) was our only information. No one could find out anything more, and we weren't expecting to hear much from the train staff.
Our stop amounted to about 45 minutes total, and the train arrived about an hour late.
The man with the pool hardly picked up his head from his iPad, never participating in the chatter that was going on amongst the other four of us.
The third man - not pool man, not the guy with the news - was appalled. He was cracking jokes about how it would be faster to take a taxi; he was making obnoxious estimates as to when he figured the delay would be over ("I think we're here for another hour, at least"). Worst of all, he was fading in and out of the conversation, often replacing his headphones only to take them out when someone would say something (not directed at him) and ask what was said. He was neither participating nor taking deciding not to involve himself; he made everyone repeat what they said twice, because he missed it the first time, thanks to his music.
The woman was a bit more empathetic to the death, but said very little. She, too, was concerned with getting home to her family.
The man with the news was being asked by the third man for more information when he clearly had nothing else to provide - he knew of a death, and that was all. He handled himself well in the face of the obnoxious man with the headphones, mostly ignoring him.
All vocally expressed their frustration with the fact that our train had stopped in a spot with no internet - some did so several times.
I could hardly believe what was happening before me. A total lack of empathy on the part of four human beings, who all knew that a man had died about two miles up the track in one of the most brutal ways imaginable. This was not the death of a starving child in a faraway land, a death to which it can be easy to be apathetic toward; this was a very tangible, very present, very visible death. What's more, it happened in our community - all of these people surely lived within a few miles of the incident. No one seemed to have stopped what they were doing even for a moment to consider the loss of life.
Look, I am not completely oblivious to the fact that people want to get home after a long day at work. People want to spend time with their families; they want to relax and have a beer; they want to watch TV and go to bed. And being on a very crowded train with negative leg room is far from the most ideal place to spend an hour and a half. I get it - really, I do.
But the reality remained. We were there, stopped on the track. Nothing that any of us could do - no amount of complaining, chiding, joking, sarcasm or irritation was going to change that. To me, perhaps ironically, this felt like the ideal setting to reflect on why we were stopped.
Yes, we wanted to go home to our families. But how difficult is it, really, to step back and appreciate that we actually have families to go home to? To understand that, because of the reason for our stoppage, one dinner table will have one fewer place setting?
I try to refrain from shadowy remarks on the changing nature of our society, or the obsession with technology, or anything of the nature that is so easy to target. I find that most remarks of this sort are somewhat obtuse and impervious to the realities of the world. So I'll avoid that here.
But what I can't avoid is communicating the genuine bad taste that was left in my mouth by my experience yesterday. Maybe I'm wrong - maybe the actions taken by the four folks I sat with represented their ways of coping with a death. But I generally have at least a decent eye for human emotion, and it seemed fairly clear to me that this was not the case. My guess is that none of these people paused even for a moment.
I wasn't asking for anyone to hold a memorial service on the stopped train, but the level of complaining and the complete lack of patience was disconcerting. In truth, I'll never know if these people really did feel something. Maybe they gave their wives or husbands an extra kiss when they got home. Hopefully, they did. But the immediate reaction was not there.
I understand that it's not up to me to tell people how they ought to react to a tragedy. Especially when, to be fair, the only effect that the tragedy has on their lives is an hour long delay on their commute home.
That said, let's all try to remember what's important. An hour delay is a shame -- nothing more. Call it bad luck, if you want. But when a tragedy that is so apparent, so very much in the forefront of our day, is taken as an assault on our evening, as if we were the victims of the event, it's worthwhile to take a step back.
Going home to a full dinner table is a beautiful thing. It pained me to consider the real consequences of our stop and its source. The golden rule remains true: patience is a virtue. It is the most virtuous of virtues, I'd say. And empathy is its best friend.