As grade school students in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, we took the bus from our neighborhood to nearby Willow Street school. The bus trip lasted twenty minutes or so, making loops through the modest neighborhoods next to Media Heights Country Club.
Our bus driver was named Glenn. I remember his kind expression and deep black hair as we boarded the bus. He’d always say good morning and good afternoon while dropping us off.
Catching the bus
Most days I loved riding the bus to school. That meant I got to spend time with my best friend David. In fact I loved David so much as a friend that I would sometimes hide behind the bushes at my regular bus stop and wait for the bus to load the kids and then take off running across the grassy practice range of the golf club toward David’s bus stop about 400 meters away.
The bus meanwhile had to circle all the way out of the neighborhood and take a right up Route 222, then roll up the hills of Golf Club Road to where my friend David lived on the 17th fairway.
That run from my regular bus stop over to David’s was an act of defiance in some respects. The conventionality of boarding the bus at the same stop every day would rankle me now and then. So the thrill of breaking the rules somewhat and joining up with David to talk before the bus arrived so we could climb on together was a sign of my devotion to our friendship.
Glenn the Bus Driver never said much about my adventurous ways. He obviously knew what I was doing, yet he never reported it to the school or my parents. Perhaps there were risks in my behavior, and what I needed was a good talking to or something along those lines. The 1960s were full of good talking-tos as I recall. But they weren’t always right.
Running the risk
To me the perceived principle behind my actions (wanting to join a friend) and the joy of that run between bus stops was worth the risk of getting a talking-to. The world is full of conventions and rules that ignore the needs and justice of people. One must be constantly on the lookout for dangerous habits of thought or action that confine our sense of understanding.
We should recall that it was the actions of Rosa Parks on a bus in Alabama that brought to light the injustice of how black people were treated in America. It was a habit of mind that black people did not deserve the same rights as whites. Here’s how the Rosaparksfacts.com website describes the situation. “Many historians date one of the major sparks of the American civil rights movement to a single event that took place on December 1, 1955. While 80% of bus riders in Montgomery, Alabama were African American, half of the seats were reserved for white people. If there were not enough seats for white passengers, African Americans were forced to move to the back or stand. This separateness was the rule in every facet of life in the South, but perhaps nowhere was it more pronounced than in the bus system. It’s fitting that it was on a bus that a movement which would transform America would be born.”
The costs of resistance
It takes courage to stand up against ugly habits of mind. People are apt to call you angry or tell you to get back in line, to know your place and to work harder to “get along.”
There is a post-modern form of censorship that is like crowdsourcing in reverse. It holds enormous danger for all those who dare speak against the grain of conventional wisdom. They’re quick to demand that you abide by their opinions even when they defy all logic or depend upon a foundation of cognitive dissonance and the science of denial. So few are willing to do the work of self-examination. That means those who do will often be ostracized as arrogant, selfish or pseudo-intellectual.
This is not to contend as Dietrich Bonhoeffer did in his theologic treatise The Cost of Discipleship, that “We forget that discipleship means estrangement from the world.” He struggled to maintain that philosophy in the face of Nazi aggression and atrocities. Ultimately he felt the call––indeed he was forced––to speak out against a popular form of opinion that threatened to overwhelm the world. That willingness to advocate for justice cost him his life.
The real call to justice in this world is to break from convention at times when the whole world seems against you. Popular opinion is often just that. It is popular for the simple reason that it does not take much work to go along with the crowd. It happens in elections, and politics. It happens in religion and faith. It happens in sports and entertainment and music and art. People will always tell you to stop being different, to stop questioning authority and to stop being yourself.
But look at what comes from breaking from convention! When artists once decided to stop painting realistically and to paint the colors of light and air as they mixed in the world, they invented an entire new way of looking at things. But they were also branded mere “impressionists” by those who considered their work a poor endeavor. The same goes for Lutherans who followed a maverick Catholic priest who brought Protestantism into the world. Stop for a moment and think about that word: protestant. It means doing more than going along.
Conventions and credibility
It takes the right kind of pride to stand up and stand out against injustice when those in love with the idea of authority and power tell you to stand down. It may cost you friends. It may cost you credibility. It might even cost you your job at times, or your membership in any number of organizations where convention rules the day.
It takes real character to acknowledge these costs. People like Rosa Parks stand out even more with time because their choices to resist the status quo change the world. As the website describes: “Rosa Parks has become one of the most iconic figures in modern American history, but she didn’t intend to change the world on that day. She had simply had a firm belief in maintaining her dignity, and would not be treated differently because of the color of her skin. Her Christ-like character and “quiet strength” stood firm as her resolve to “do what is right” opened the doors for African Americans in the USA and throughout the world. When the bus driver demanded that she give up her seat, she refused and was arrested. On the day of her trial, local African American leaders organized a boycott of the bus system that lasted until the Supreme Court ended bus segregation. After this victory, the Civil Rights Movement went on to challenge laws that prevented African Americans from being treated like equal citizens.”
How much more prescient her example seems to become as civil rights struggles with police continue to vex America to this day. Some people in this world see opportunity for change just by holding strong to the simple fact of what is right. They may face political pressure and propaganda, even threats to their very lives. Of course it all happens so fast these days in the world of social media that we can see these evolutions happen before our very eyes. But that does not mean we should not run to get on the bus when we can, and the way we see that is right.
It always felt like Glenn the Bus Driver understood some small need in me to explore the lack of convention that grows into a passion with time. For that I am always thankful.
Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride, a chronicle of cancer survivorship and facing life challenges in a positive way. It is available on Amazon.com.