Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

Something Is Terribly Missing

I haven’t been able to put my finger on it. Have you?

Thankfully, Jerry Useem has. In his recent article, “The Psychological Benefits of Commuting to Work,” he identifies what has been absent in our lives. Confined to the house due to the coronavirus pandemic, we have been forced to give up our commute. And this, he warns, has messed with our mental health. Without that morning and late afternoon ritual of driving back and forth to work, “the theatres of life collapse into one.” Working from home, there are no beginnings or endings. As he puts it, “The hero’s journey never happens. The threshold goes uncrossed.”

It all makes sense. I have felt anything but noble and heroic. For this past year, my commute has been from my bedroom to the study, interrupted by the need to put the dogs out (yes, unfortunately they are still consuming space on this planet). Oh, and make my morning tea. It’s fine, but I haven’t been able to shake the dull void I feel before bedtime. There has been no valiant journey. No “role-clarifying prospection.” The only threshold I have been crossing lately is the one from outdoors to indoors.

Useem is right. That emptiness I feel is the loss of time on Highway 26 and I-84. In my Honda, I had some sense of control. Alone in my car, I could choose my temperature, my Pandora station, and my route. I enjoyed the solace of uninterrupted time to think and plan, heeding insights from such voices as Dan Patrick or Colin on The Herd. Driving home allowed me to decompress (no matter the congestion, nerve racking lane changes, or inclimate weather). I could make calls without interruption and gradually shift from my profession to my other roles–husband/father/and all-around regular guy. The commute allowed me time and space to shift from faculty meeting agendas to my wife’s lists. Now the rhythm and ritual are gone, replaced by career change (writer) and Covid.  

I do have my kayak and my bike, and while they are daily transports to who knows where, they do not feel like commuter material. Maybe if I downloaded SwitchBot and reply to its prompts like, “How did you feel about your work today?” “Were you productive?” “Does anyone know you are alive?”

These are critical questions. I have to step up and get back in sync. The edits sent this week from the publisher suggest the coming weeks will be one long trailer. Writing conspires to make me so one-dimensional. My role changes from writer to writer-husband to writer-sleeper to writer-writer. It has become an obsession requiring a kind of “demented patience.” Useem’s article is helping me to get a life again.

No more falling into narcoleptic comas at the desk. I’m commuting now (much like Bill Murray proclaiming “I’m sailing” while bound to the mast). I am going to pick up my pace as I come downstairs (to match the one I once had going upstairs to my seminary office). I am considering putting a lock on my study door so that I will need to carry my keys. Polish my shoes before I go to bed, dress up for the day, and recheck my threads. After all, an underdressed day is an unproductive day. Goodbye Columbia…hello Men’s Wearhouse. I am leaving before rush hour, packing my yogurt lunch, and heading down the hallway (first door on the left). I intend to let family members know I am available at the end of the day, once I have locked my office and commuted to the living room. Finally, I plan to wash my car and get it ready to move from the driveway to the garage. It can get really dirty sitting up here in this wilderness.

Nearby Metalline Falls is hosting a Bigfoot festival this weekend, so I may take it out on the Hwy and put the car through its paces. It’s important to be part of both a commute and a movement. Time permitting< I will attend a Sasquatch Lives Matter rally. Life is so full now.

While I may not actually do many of these things, I will—I must—take heed to Useem’s larger point. Rituals, whatever they are—commutes, Sabbaths, etc–serve as friction. They slow us down and force us to ask—“Why am I doing this?” “What is God up to?” “Where is this taking me?” “Can I leave it behind and be someone else tonight?” 

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