On the penultimate evening of 2012, I boarded a VIA train at Belleville, Ontario to make my way home to Montreal. The train left the station. Just. After rolling for about two minutes, it stopped. And stayed stopped for the next 270 minutes.
Cheery souls from settlements to the east had energetically erected barricades across the railway tracks to protest some perceived malfeasance or other. They were apparently blissfully mindless of the tactical futility of stopping passenger trains to advance their cause.
After standing outside on a frozen December night for four and a half hours, the happy warriors for infinite justice abruptly dismantled their obstructions and allowed our train, along with 15 others similarly stalled on the route, to roll on. Number of lives briefly disrupted: 2,000. Outcome of the whole effort: utterly pointless.
Far more instructive, I think, was the reaction of those aboard the blocked trains, or at least in the car where I sat waiting. On the happy side, the couple directly across the aisle from me skootched down into their comfy VIA seats, had a bouncy chat in amused joual, and within moments were whistling the warm exhalations of artisanal snorers.
All around, alas, was neither quite so calm nor bright.
Agitation, as is its wont, quickly got ants in its pants and moved up and down the car demanding something be done not now, but right now. The fact no one actually knew what was going on, and that therefore everyone was, shall we say, limited in what they could actually do, was deemed just another irritating ant in the pant.
Among the most irritated was a young mother seated directly behind me who demonstrated an extraordinary ability to channel her anger into speed dialing an astonishing array of aunts, uncles, mothers, fathers, friends and apparent life partners once or twice removed. While her boy sat beside her singing Christmas carols to himself, she poured into her interlocutors' ears synoptic commentary on the situation interwoven with feral free jazz riffs of f-bombs, mf-bombs, and variations from her own inexhaustible bomb-making capacity.
Now, I, once, on a Wednesday afternoon in late February of 1996—the blush of shame returns to my cheek as if it were yesterday—let slip from my lip something like the bomb combinations erupting from the young mother. I am in no position, then, to point fingers. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Yet I couldn't help thinking as I felt the impatience crescendoing around me how the pointlessness of the external protest stopping our train found its doppelganger in the internal protests about the train's failure to move ahead.
In fairness, I did have on my iPad, for meditative consolation, recordings of Glenn Gould playing Bach's Goldberg Variations and Leonard Cohen singing: "Sometimes I head for the highway/I'm old, and the mirrors don't lie/ But crazy has places to hide in/that are deeper than any goodbye." I also had 10,000-plus pages of G.K. Chesterton's writings downloaded from the Internet for free, including The Man Who Was Thursday, the one novel everyone should read at least three times before they die.
I can't imagine, though, that each of my fellow passengers lacked an equivalent according to their tastes. If there is one single, indisputable fact about the current age, it is that the glory and dross of human attention and distraction is accessible literally by lifting one's fingers. We can command spiritual uplift and mere amusement alike with an immediate and all-powerful ease once reserved for the gods. So, like, what's the rush, man?
As far as I could discern, the rush was that the agitation inside, though caused directly by the actions of agitators outside, really arose from perceived promise broken by those who were supposed to be in charge. VIA Rail (read: mom and dad) promised—like, promised, eh?—to get everyone where everyone wanted to go exactly when they wanted to get there and . . . and . . . they lied, eh, like, they really lied.
What was being reacted to, in reality, was the perpetuation of our culture's great distorting lie of managerialism that so hampers our judgments and keeps fresh our spiritual wounds.
Managerialism has taught us since at least the end of the Second World War to believe that all will be as the systems we create promise it will be. All can be made good. All can be managed according to every expectation. And if a system fails to meet that exalted managerial standard? Why, tweak, improve, adapt, innovate, perfect. Above all, perfect. (And while you're at it, find a way to justify disposing of the defective products that allowed failure to frustrate managerial promise.)
It's a huge and impossible lie, improbable to anyone who has ever witnessed to Satan's single great lie from the Old Testament: "Ye shall be as gods." But we believe it still. Believe it? We act on it. Our basic instincts arise from our blind, embedded faith in it. As the man said, crazy has places to hide in that are deeper than any goodbye.
This side of Heaven, there is really only one force in our lives powerful enough to bring us, however temporarily, out of the lunacy of our managerial expectations. It entered the VIA car during the 1,215 minutes I sat at Belleville station when my wife called to say that a very dear friend of ours, a wonderful family doctor who devoted his life to caring for the sick and dying, had just died of a heart attack while shoveling snow.
After I hung up, the young mother behind me continued swearing to all who would hear. I wanted to turn around and protest to her and all the other angry passengers in the car: "You will get home. A good man will never go home again."
Of course, I didn't. Doing so would have been utterly pointless at that point. They just wanted to get where they were going. The next day was the last day of the year, after all, and it was important to be in place in plenty of time to wish everyone a happy new year.