Human life has always involved a certain degree of suffering. There are even those who would claim it brings you closer to God. Clearly, it is certainly heart wrenching to see destitute people on the street or pictures of starving people in Africa. Yet, our level of actual commissary varies, depending on the circumstances. Growing up in the United States whose underlying ethos is Protestant self-responsibility, there is always a feeling, not always justified, that alcoholics or drug addicts, not to mention people those with mental illnesses, can and should turn their lives around. In other words, we share a mixed feeling of sympathy and distain. By contrast, those individuals whose fate has been determined by factors outside their control elicit much more sympathy. It is easier to give a donation to causes helping hurricane victims and abused dogs.
I am fortunate and clearly appreciate that I work from home. My getting to work involves five steps from bedroom, with only an occasional traffic jam caused by two cats running in front of me. The college where I work is a 10-minute drive or 20-minute walk away. However, for the vast majority of working Americans, Europeans and Asians, getting to work involves hours of travels and constant traffic jams. For example, in Los Angeles, a half hour drive is considered close with many commuters stuck on the road for almost two hours each way. Cities with good public transportation systems provide slightly more friendly environments but all cities and their peripheral road networks suffer from heavy traffic jams.
The costs of this long commute go beyond gas and wasted time. The drivers themselves suffer whether or not they are aware of it. People day in and day out get up knowing that, if everything goes right, they may only have an hour moving at a snail’s pace. Even worse, after a long day’s work, it takes great effort to maintain the patience and attention required to get home safely. All this stressful time in the car, even if slightly mitigated by music or good company, leaves people exhausted. Overtime, most commuters become numb, fortunately, but the stress remains with its accompanying fatigue. Just like a homeless that have lived many years in the street, commuters don’t know any other way of life.
Clearly, they did not create the situation nor do they have any significant ability to improve the situation. Still, as a non-commuter that occasionally has to join the crawling masses, I am moved to pity when I realize that people do this every day. Like Jean Valjean persecuted to the end of his life, working people in the West will suffer until they retire. It may be not at the level of the starving in Africa but they are still les Misérables of our time.