For the last two-and-a-half years, I’ve had the honour of going to university with five of my closest friends. I mean “go” in a literal sense. Through 24.5 kilometres of the Greater Hamilton Area’s finest freeways, we sped along in very small Japanese cars from the mid-1990s at very high speeds with piles of baggage, books and old work clothes around us. It was a grand social experiment, a way to save money, an adventure in driving on icy roads and a helpful technique for stewardship of the earth, but above all, the carpool forcefully placed four people in front of me, on a daily basis, and demanded that I love them.
The twenty-first century highway is part of the buffer system that isolates people from each other. Many of us could easily wake up early every morning, get ready alone, jump into our over-powered vehicles and motor down a deserted street to a superhighway, where we go even faster to avoid the gaze of any other driver who may be going through the same routine. We can buy coffee from a dazed employee, then speed to school and sit down at a cubicle to hit the books without ever looking into someone else’s eyes. C.S. Lewis, who claims in The Weight of Glory that “next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses,” would mourn if he could see how we wake up without any sense of the holy and immortal people around us.
Sufjan Stevens’s latest work documents the daily existential wonders of driving on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in New York. The liner notes: “In practice, basic Darwinian laws prevail: Every Man For Himself. Drive As Fast As You Can. Vengeance Is Mine. . . . We are antisocial, pathological, narcissistic, criminal, careless, lawless, mischievous, and manipulative, taking every possible advantage to surmount (and conquer) that car in front of us. . . . I am Man-On-Wheels. Hear Me Roar.”
Our carpool was, above all else, determined to see if we could make our 24.5 kilometre commute to Redeemer a subversive attempt to change commuter culture. Could these Darwinian laws really be overcome? Do we need to assume them as soon as we strap on our seat belts? Are we really alone? If education is really about learning, then my friends and I were educated as much on the drive to school and back as we were in classes.
Jack Kerouac says in On the Road that in New York City “there’s a feeling of wacky comradeship. . . ” This wacky comradeship on the road to school has been the voice of God, calling to me in the insanity and rootless transience of academic life to show me the worth and joy of living in his presence and in his creatures’ presence.
The first and most important lesson I’ve learned from my carpool is about the value of people versus the value of being right about something. Numerous arguments about the Bible, music, culture, Herman Dooyeweerd, neocalvinism, social justice, English courses and obscure facts have taken place on our trips. These arguments were often bitter and personal at the beginning of our academic career, when we did not realize that we would have to drive together for the rest of the year with the memory of our fierce and personal debates recurring on all the wrong occasions. Being bound to drive together taught us that our word and the things we can share are more important than anything we could be right about. There is a world of possibilities for universities if we begin to realize that accuracy in our thought and our academic work should be maintained at great cost, but sacrificed for love in our communities. The story that tells us that the student at the top of the class, or the professor with the best ratings or the administrator with the best C.V. deserve recognition and audience, while anyone else should recognize her or listen to him, is the same story that motivates Sufjan’s psychopathic and Darwinian drivers on the BQE, and that tells us we are alone and adrift in a meaningless world.
Once we agreed to be in a carpool, God showed us the remarkable potential we had for something more. We called this “The Commune.” We took Acts 2 as our manifesto, and began to experiment with what we thought it could mean to “devote [our]selves to the Apostle’s teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” We shared time, food, and thoughts with any person at our university who would let us. We planned communal lunches after chapel on Wednesdays, where all of our food went to the middle of a big table, and where each passerby was invited to stay. We told horrible puns for hours. We painted “Love-art,” communal paintings done by our group as gifts for students in dorms, to let them know that commuters thought and cared about them. We invited guest speakers to deliver speeches at our lunches. We organized snowball fights, and handed out Reformation Day candy on October 31 to help our school maintain a memory of its reformed roots. Kerouac’s wacky comradeship comforted us while we drove and sent us into the school as joyful people.
But this type of leisure was not all we experienced. A carpool, like the rest of life, is seriously hard work. There were more disagreements about the shape of our community than there were agreements, and more evidence of judgment than evidence of grace. Carpooling meant that we would arrive at school before whatever was the earliest class among our members, and stay at school until the last person was done with what they needed to do. There were times when we challenged each other to make better use of our time so that the rest of the carpool would not have to wait at school until midnight for one member to finish his or her work. There were other times where we challenged each other to be more giving and graceful. A special balance is needed between standards of productivity and grace, and discerning this balance put incredible strain on our college friendships.
We were also all participants in other relationships and communities, and eventually the demands of what my parents call “real life” caught up with us. Two of our members got married to each other and moved to school. Two of us live within walking distance of school. Two of us still drive together, as often as we can. The strains of discerning our calling to first love and then act are real, and have divided us as we have learned different loves and different actions. But our education has lasted and has been worthwhile. We’ve learned.
The best and worst thing about our community was that we were forced to be in it. When we are forced to be with people we don’t always like, we become both irritable and vulnerable. But being forced together is good for us, because being together alerts us to the presence of other people who differ from us. As we learn that our lives are lived vulnerably before the face of each other, we learn that they are also lived vulnerably Coram Deo. Our role as respondents to God’s call and God’s presence necessitates our role as respondents to each other. This deep awareness of the presence of God and each other is the most valuable insight we’ve learned together.
We didn’t manage to change much of culture in our carpool, but we pray that our experiences will be part of a renewed commitment to love, service and high standards in our university. It’s really true, what Jesus says: “If two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them.” (Matthew 18:19-20) If we’d believe him, agree on anything, come together and ask the Father to change our culture through our carpool, university, Bible study group, hockey team or bridge society, we might be surprised at what he would do with his presence.