October 21st, 2010

Ambushed by insight

Metaphors abound in everyday speech but psychologists use them mindfully, most often to clarify something that we think is important for our audience to remember. We like to think we are the masters of our metaphors but, once expressed, they have a way of doubling back and sneaking up on us with an unexpected lesson. Setting ourselves up to be ambushed by insight, my wife and I recently boarded a westbound train in a Boston suburb and traveled to Seattle and back home again. Having done something like this before, we had an idea of what to expect and no illusions about having an easy or uneventful passage. We believed before we started that the concept of journey is a good metaphor for life but that a train journey is an even better one. This is what we learned.

On a long train ride in coach seats, there is no privilege to rank, wealth or social status. Even the folks in sleeping cars with the perks of beds, showers, first call to the dining car and wine tastings still have to contend with bumpy stretches of track and long intervals of speed reduced to 15 miles per hour because a slow freight has the right of way or flash floods threaten to wash out the rail beds. These are equal opportunity annoyances and, even if they are harder to endure sitting up most of the night in coach, we wish our more comfortable companions well. There is no envy on a train.

There are always slow freights, flash floods or confused cows that show up at the most inconvenient times.

Everybody has a story to share on a train. Community seating in the dining car is designed to encourage making new acquaintances, but you don’t need a social director on the rails. We are social by nature.

We travel to fulfill every conceivable human need. A woman and her teenage son return from visiting relatives in the east while the husband and father stays at home to care for his critically ill father. The day after we meet in the dining car, I see bad news reflected in the woman’s face and she tells me the old man has died. A young man from the south joins his aging father in Ohio to share an adventure that will eventually take them above the Arctic Circle and strengthen the deep affection and respect they obviously have for one another. An American original boards the train at an isolated spot on the Great Plains. He lives in a town of 900 people, 600 miles from the nearest hospital and is traveling to the coast for a family wedding. We talk for a long time before we get around to asking each other what we do. A train conversation always starts with “Where are you going?” never with “What do you do?” When he eventually asks and I tell him I am a psychologist, he replies that he is a welder who once had dinner with Karl Menninger.

This world through which we travel is full of beauty, both the natural beauty of lakes, rivers, plains, mountains and seas, and the man-made beauty of towering cities and simple prairie towns. Sadly, we are often too busy to notice.

We pass through long stretches of empty landscapes and our eyes are locked on the unrelieved desolation. If we turn away from the window, we might miss the fort where Sitting Bull surrendered or fail to notice how green fades almost imperceptibly to brown as we enter the high desert. Desolation has its own kind of beauty.

Where there is no rain, there is no rust. When Arlo Guthrie sang about the “graveyards of rusted automobiles,” he did not find them in the high, dry plains. The man sitting next to me stares intently out the window when we pass vehicles abandoned on the plains and spots the frame of a 100-year-old Model A Ford. He tells me he is keeping track of these locations with plans to recover and restore another car for his collection. Just when we think we have heard about everything that can capture the passion of the human spirit, this fellow shows up with his scavenger’s eye, mechanic’s hands and collector’s zeal. There is no limit to human interests or resourcefulness.

When we emerge from the thick evergreen forests of central Washington, the sea is with us again, oddly to our right when we turn south. We are on the West Coast, a mirror image of our eastern home, but only from our egocentric, limited point of view. Everywhere is home for somebody.

So here we are, our trip ended, our experiment complete. Does the metaphor of life as a train journey have anything to teach us and, if so, do we learn it better if we actually live the metaphor? The answer is obvious but I wonder if the lessons endure or if they need to be repeated. Since my return, I have not been on another train or, for that matter, any public conveyance that simulates the experience. Unless something changes soon, I am limited to whatever insight I can glean from riding the hospital elevator. But that’s okay. With all of its ups and downs, it has its possibilities.

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.

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