Combating Cynicism Through Active Commutes

Today I was reading David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech “This is Water.”  In it, he addresses the theme of selfishness, as well as the tedious aspects of adult life and how we all construct and view our life experiences.

Our challenge, he says, is to step outside ourselves, take an active role in interpreting our surroundings, and not succumb to that everyday tediousness. I call this fighting cynicism. In recent years, the importance of this challenge has been very present in my own mind. It’s easy for me to become irritated by the day-to-day administrative functions of my life as I fume about how they hold me back from a potentially “rad” existence. I’ve been hearing that word “rad” a lot lately, and I hate it, so I’m using it here. Cynicism! Wait, where was I?

As I read David Foster Wallace’s speech, I thought that it would have benefitted from a paragraph suggesting that one of the best ways to stave off cynicism is through actively commuting, whenever you can.

My daily commute, which I’ve thrust upon myself due to my conventional choice of a Monday through Friday job, is roughly the same route every day. Surely the daily commute is something ripe for cynicism. However, most days my trips to the office don’t feel mundane or trying, and I attribute that to running and bicycling as my transportation modes of choice.

Winter run commute

An active commute, be it bicycling or running, obligates me to interact with my environment in a way other modes do not. I notice small differences– whether the moon is waxing or waning, how the day’s wind will push me about, and the daily deterioration of pavement, path, and sidewalk.

Today I saw a cyclist commuting straight into a bitter headwind, and I thought about how tough that was and in my mind I wished her well. Commutes by bike or running put me face to face with other people. Sometimes people exchange hellos, and other days we don’t. But we still share pavement and place ourselves directly in each others’ orbits, even if for the briefest of moments.

To me, an active commute says “I’m trying.” I’m making an effort to take care of myself, and to connect to the city and everything in it.

The physical demand of an active commute puts my brain in a more relaxed and elastic space where new ideas and perspectives enter and germinate.

Maybe it’s the endorphins from the physical exertion, but when I actively commute I will step outside myself to wonder about other people around me and to consider the myriad ways in which all of us live. I can see my existence as a small blip in time, but surprisingly, this does not bother me. In that moment, it’s all okay.

The active commute takes an ordinary, potentially tedious, activity and makes it special almost every time. It continues to appeal, engage, and absorb me into the larger whole. The active commute: fighting cynicism by bike and run since 2004.

15 thoughts on “Combating Cynicism Through Active Commutes

  1. the thing i miss most about my old job was my daily bike commute: past the grandma sitting on her porch rocking [every day a BIG ‘Good mornin’ darling!’] past the guys working in the auto parts yard and best of all, the pre-school playground [teacher to kids, ‘Wave to the bike lade, good morning bike lady!’] on the way home, ‘long day today?’ ‘ride safe, its’ getting dark’, from the neighborhood kids, ‘hey bike lady wanna race?’ when i was off bike for two weeks, everyone wanted to know what happened. i felt very loved and a real part of the neighborhood.

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  2. Completely agree. In the two years I commuted in DC, the daily ride was the highlight of the day each way. And you learn and see so much more at street level from the bike rather than being crammed into Metro rail cars or sitting in traffic in your car. Finding new stores, eateries, coffee shops, side routes and more. And of course interacting with people. Finding familiar faces and touching the community. Getting back in touch with life instead of cynicism.

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    1. Great piece and I agree. As I was waffling over my commute this morning, I pondered the great question, “To ride, or not to ride?” I decided that if I rode, I’d have an adventure, see the sunrise over the lake, feel the fog and chill, and hear my heart beat as I climbed the hill. If I drove, I’d just have a Wednesday.

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    2. Yes! The city is constantly changing. And the bike community is small enough that you do begin to recognize the “regulars” on your commute route.

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  3. Active commutes are the way to go, of course. Plus, it has the added benefit of keeping us off digital devices, if only for that period. I sent my youngest boy out the door only moments ago in -10F weather (his choice!). Now there’s a boy who lives and breathes computer games, yet decides he still needs his active commute.

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  4. Love this rad post!!

    Active commutes are so sensual – the feel of the weather, the scenes we happen past, the stimulation of a little exertion.

    Running, walking or biking commutes are truly the antithesis of driving, where other cars are merely irksome obstacles in our journey; or cramming onto mass transportation, where we practice averting our eyes and trying to avoid having someone’s backpack jammed into our ribs.

    I read recently somewhere: The opposite of loneliness is not relationships or love, it’s connection.

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  5. Yes, this! After leaving a job that had me car commuting an hour each way, I realized how cynical and depressed those two hours in the car made me every day. Now that I mostly bike/transit commute, I’m so much less stressed, crabby, and cynical. Cycling every day has broken the feeling of monotony that most people feel during the 9-5 grind and has, instead, filled my days with adventure.

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    1. I can’t imagine car commuting and how depressing it must be. Sometimes a bike or run commute is not perfect, but it’s still time I generally feel is put to good use.

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  6. I only bike the mile to the Metro stop, but I still find joy many days in waving hi to my neighbors, taking in the color of the sky, and looking at the state of the trees on the way. I wish I had time to bike commute in all of the way!

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