Character

Letting compassion come through.

I spend over two hours of every day on the train during my commute. I definitely prefer it to driving—sure, the schedule is restrictive, but at least I don’t have to deal with expressway traffic or ragoholic drivers—but it has its shortcomings.

One of those is a biggie. Train accidents aren’t common, but they’re not all that rare, either. Pedestrian accidents—sadly, often suicides—are, of course, the worst. I once sat on a train for more than three hours as crews responded to, cleaned up, and investigated a pedestrian accident. It was a heartbreaking experience. The conductor very plainly told us we’d hit someone. More than once, he used the phrase “There’s a body under the train, and they’ve got to get it out.”

He was just trying to keep passengers updated on the situation, but for me, it was way too graphic an overshare. I watched fire, police, and railroad crews moving in and out of the view from my window seat and thought, I’ve literally never been this close to death before. I cried quietly the whole time, imagining that poor man’s last moments.

I haven’t been on a train directly involved in an accident since then, but I’ve sat in backed-up trains waiting for clearance after a crossing accident several other times. This week, on a particularly snowy day with whiteout conditions and slippery streets, my train was stuck when the one ahead of us hit a car at a crossing.

When the conductor announced this delay over the intercom, everyone groaned. Many of us had caught an early train hoping to avoid weather-related delays during rush hour, and there we were, stuck anyway.

But do you know what I realized? While many people were vocal about their disappointment with the delay, not one person spoke up and said, “Wow, I hope the people in the car are okay.” Not one of us. I thought it, but I didn’t say it aloud. I should’ve. Instead, everyone was saying something like, “I hope this doesn’t take as long as it did last time” or “I don’t have time for this.”

For background, delays are longer when there’s a fatality involved. When that happens, all those fire, police, and railroad crews have to perform an investigation and document the accident. When it’s just a car that’s been struck, they can simply clear the tracks of debris, inspect them for soundness, and let the waiting trains move on.

A little while later, the conductor walked through our car and said he’d gotten word that there were no fatalities—a car had stalled on the tracks and the driver couldn’t move it in time because of the heavy snow. The driver managed to walk away without a scratch. Someone had caught the accident on video (a whole other topic, if you ask me), and it looked like the car’s front end was hit by the train—not the midsection, where the driver would’ve been vulnerable.

And do you know what I heard when he said that? “Oh, great, no deaths—we won’t be stuck here much longer.”

Not “Thank God that driver is alive” or “How great that no one was hurt” or even “I hope they had good insurance.” The passengers just voiced a general satisfaction that their schedules wouldn’t be interrupted too dramatically.

It’s amazing how easy it is for us to become desensitized to tragedies. When it’s the train in front of ours doing the hitting and you’re tired after a long day and want to get home, it’s easy to pretend that accident is happening in a different universe, and that makes it easy to pretend that your time is worth more than the life that was at risk. When it’s your train but it’s happened before and it was the victim’s choice to die, it’s easy to block the experience and cast it aside.

The thing is, we don’t even think about it sometimes. It’s not that we actively choose to believe our evening plans are worth more than that person’s whole life. It’s just that it never occurs to us to recognize that lack of thought.

The ability to avoid emotional reactions to catastrophe is a defense mechanism. It’s designed to help us continue surviving even as we face danger, or as others are hurt or killed. But that mechanism doesn’t really prevent the emotions so much as it blocks them. And the mechanism isn’t perfect, either. It’s not the end-all, be-all, and it’s not a solution to the struggles we face. Blocking emotions (or even memories) is simply the mind’s way of protecting us in the moment, much like our bodies elevate our temperature in an attempt to fight infection. Though it’s a valiant effort to address an immediate problem, it can often have longstanding effects on our minds, our emotions, and our souls.

As men and women of a single, global community, we owe it to ourselves and each other to overcome our instincts in favor of compassion and justice. So instead of letting your well-meaning brain stamp out your feelings, let your heart be free to care. Let it speak up, reach out, and make a difference. That’s what makes us human.