In Praise of 5-Hour Commutes and Dead-End Jobs

[1 May 2019]

“A 5 hour commute?” you say. “Surely, he must be exaggerating,” you think to yourself, incapable of believing that someone would chose to do this to themselves – fearful of the mental state of the sort of person who might. Dear friend, though I cannot vouch for my mental state, let me assure you that I am, in fact, telling the truth: I do commute for 5 hours a day.

As I was thinking about writing this post, I composed several drafts full of long-winded sob stories about how I ended up in this position. But, after sitting with it for a long time, I realized that that’s not the direction I wanted to take this.

In short, I had some big dreams for what my life would look like in 2019. Instead, what dominates my time is my job – not the rewarding job I envisioned for myself in my life roadmap. This is a customer service job for a small company where I sit at my desk for 8 hours a day and get excited when the mail lady with her perfectly-kept helmet-hair walks by the window because it adds variety to my day. No opportunities for promotion. Low salary. No new skills acquired.


On top of that, my commute, which used to be a 30 minute walk, ballooned overnight into a 2.5-hour triathlon of walking (usually running), commuter trains, and public transportation to get to job where I feel like nothing more than a cog in a machine. I’ll share about how I found myself in this situation another time.

And so, to summarize the long and wearisome aforementioned partially-self-inflicted sob story and spare you, dear reader, the tedium of slogging through my dreary misadventures, I would like to simply say: Life has a funny way of not going according to plan. Perhaps I’ll cave at some point in the future, or at least find a more constructive way to share my experiences.

Currently, however, my life looks something like this: wake up, scramble 2.5 hours to work, sit at a desk for 8 hours, crawl 2.5 hours home, make dinner, go to bed. And do it all over again, ad nauseam.

The first few months of making this commute were, truthfully, terrible. It was a terrible feeling of loss –  suddenly finding myself without time to pursue anything in my life that I found valuable: friends, exercise, schooling, church, hospitality, or even really much fun at all. My existence felt boiled down to a vicious and meaningless cycle: make money so I could stay alive so I could keep making money so I could keep staying alive. And that in and of itself is motivating only on the most essential level; the existential plane is left barren.

After the initial pain wore off, though, I began to see other things.

At first, it was just the trees. I saw the same trees twice a day on my commute. I began this journey in the summer; as time wore on and autumn began to peek through, I began to notice – intentionally notice – the changing of the seasons about me. Have you ever gone out of your way to look at the same tree every day, season after season after season? I have now. It’s a subtle, sublime glory. Pale green; then, starting with the tips of the leaves on the fringes and suddenly – wham! – overnight gold and ochre and plum and scarlet; then, barren branches, weighed down by powdered snow and icicles that seem to glow from the inside out; and now, leaves: a different green from the summer green, and fuller.

Next, it was the people. I wonder who that cute ginger boy who sits across from me every day is. Sun-hat lady normally wears all black but today she is wearing yellow – I wonder what inspired that change!  I didn’t pass the mom with her stroller today – I hope the kids are okay. These people have become more than just part of the scenery; they are my fellow humans – growing, shifting, changing – with stories that happen to intersect with mine for this time, however long it lasts.

Most recently, I have begun to notice my own inner landscape – the ways it contours and shifts and changes. I’ve come to notice that it’s hard for me to sit still: I get anxious and begin to have negative thoughts, but, as soon as I begin to walk, they immediately go away. I’ve noticed that, on overcast days, my heart is lighter and I’m more likely to laugh. I’ve noticed that I often use thinking about the next thing to ignore what I’m feeling right now.

I’ve come to connect time and place and emotion as a complex tapestry of landmarks – personal monuments to my own place in history. I can say, “When I saw that person on my commute last, I wasn’t sure how to deal with the bad news I had just gotten; now, the situation has turned out for the better,” or “When the leaves were last here, I didn’t know how to cope; now, I am finding joy again.”

What was and has been birthed through this process is a greater awareness of the present. This has been also compounded by my practice of silence for the entire duration of my commute – something I started in Lent and loved so much that I have continued it.

What I have come to see is something startling in its beautiful simplicity. Each day is not a holding pen for the next big thing. As Frankl reminds us, life can only have meaning if it has inherent meaning today.

Not meaning for how today gets us to tomorrow. Only if today holds something valuable in and of itself. I realised how tempting it is to see seasons of hardship as just that: a season – something to just get over with while casting your net into the future and hoping for the next good thing to come around the corner. For the first few months, this was my tactic for survival. Every day I would wake up and tell myself, “This’ll be over soon. Just a couple more weeks and I’ll be back in the city and I won’t have to commute anymore and my life can really start back up again.” But I’ve come to see that meaning can’t be made out of that kind of mindset.

Perhaps TS Eliot was right when he said that it is only through time that time can be redeemed.

I could speak at great length about how this experience has helped me appreciate people in all sorts of more difficult circumstances: even lower-paying jobs, multiple kids, multiple jobs, single-parenting, people with disabilities. I won’t speak about privilege and advantages here, though I could. Perhaps I will at another point.

Even this morning, I was walking on the sidewalk to my first train and I noticed that the bushes that have recently burst onto the scene in all their leafy splendor acquired tiny purple flower buds overnight.

For all my philosophical bluster, I certainly hope this season doesn’t last forever. Summer is just around the corner and the heat and I are not friends; the thought of having to commute 5 hours a day in the heat is not appealing in the slightest. However, should this time of commuting and dead-ends jobs continue, I know that it will be an abundant time ready to be experienced to its fullest if only you know where – and how! – to look.

10 responses to “In Praise of 5-Hour Commutes and Dead-End Jobs”

  1. WTG avatar

    I love your ability to shift your perspective; to find in what initially seems like a horrid situation, amazing wisdom and insight. The piece really capture that element, for me, with this line: “After the initial pain wore off, though, I began to see other things.” Enjoyed this. Thanks.

    1. Nathan avatar

      Thank you so much! It has been quite a journey, but I am (coming to be) glad for it!
      Thanks for commenting and stopping by, as usual!

  2. Harbans avatar

    Thanks for sharing wonderful thoughts. ;))

    1. Nathan avatar

      Thank you so much! I really appreciate it! 🙂

      1. Harbans avatar

        Thanks a lot for your kind words. Regards.

  3. Stevie Turner avatar

    Enjoyed this. My husband used to commute for 6 hours every day until we moved to the East of England from London to be nearer his job in Norfolk. He was much happier then!

    1. Nathan AM Smith avatar

      Thank you! 6 hours. Wow. That’s quite a day! I can imagine that he was much happier after cutting it down!

      1. Stevie Turner avatar

        He was. Our boys hardly ever saw him during the week.

        1. Nathan AM Smith avatar

          I can imagine! That sounds so exhausting!

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