Copyright © 2015
By Ralph F. Couey
Except cited image
There is a road. It doesn't seem to have a beginning or an end, even though logic and reason mandate such bookends. No one can remember the history of the road, only that it's always been there.
It's not a terribly remarkable stretch of pavement, as roads go, in that it is in some places straight and wide, and narrow and twisty in others. It climbs hills and descends into valleys. It passes through verdant forests, empty deserts, along shorelines and coastlines. It bisects endless acres of stolid corn and dancing wheat, and witnessed by grazing animals in vast meadows.
The road is heavily traveled because it is a vital artery; the only way to get from where we've been to where we're going; an endless ribbon connecting departure and destination.
On this road is a bus. It is owned by a bus line, whose owners and operators superficially acknowledge that they're providing a service. But they are obsessed with profit; they want to always have the newest, the fanciest buses not because of the passengers, but because it makes the other bus companies look bad. They advertise for passengers, but when their motivations are revealed, they are simply searching for the perfect way to con people into allowing the company to take them for a ride.
Like all the other vehicles, this bus is traveling along this eternal highway. But in looking closer, it is apparent that the bus's course is far from straight. Inside the bus are not one, but two drivers, both fighting desperately for sole control of the bus. As a result of this dispute, the bus is veering all over the road, first lurching to the left, and then to the right. It's a dangerous way to drive, one that endangers the bus, it's passengers, and the other vehicles on the road. But that doesn't matter to either driver. The only thing that matters to them is to be the only hands on the wheel.
Directly behind the drivers are those known as "The Beautiful People." They are bright, witty, attractive (and enormously vain about that), and can make scintillating conversation. They feel superior to the other passengers, not just because they are beautiful, but also because the believe that beauty also makes them smarter. Their position at the front of the bus puts them in the position to report to the rest of the passengers what's going on with the drivers. They have placed themselves as a barrier between the passengers and the drivers, so there is almost no contact or communication between the two parties. Hence, the passengers have to rely on the Beautiful People for news and information. Unfortunately, depending on which side of the bus they are on, the Beautiful People have a vested interest in one of the drivers. From their perspective, their driver is always right, the other always wrong; one always good, honest and ethical, the other always evil, dishonest, and corrupt. Healthy skepticism on the part of the passengers could lead them to the conclusion that, in reporting, when one side is always right, and the other always wrong, that they're not practicing journalism; they're practicing propaganda. But for the passengers, challenging the drivers and the Beautiful People is just too much work. Rather than study and learn, and develop their own opinions and truths, it is simply easier to rent someone else's.
The passengers, as we will see have their own concerns and have neither the time nor the capacity to challenge the divisive words of the Beautiful People. And with their own sides unwilling to fact-check them, the Beautiful People now have a license to lie. They control the narrative.
Behind the Beautiful People are the Free Riders. These folks get to ride the bus free because both drivers and the passengers have great compassion for their life of poverty. The Free Riders enjoy the bus ride, but really have no destination. They rely solely on their driver and their Beautiful People to tell them when and where to board and disembark. But the Free Riders have been so subsidized for so long and in so many ways that they have quite forgotten how to take care of themselves. In fact, any attempt by the driver and the Beautiful People on one side to suggest ways of learning how to become self-sufficient is met by a barrage of vitriol and condemnation from the same folks on the other side, warning the Free Riders that the other side wants to take away their free tickets and leave them stranded alongside the road. One reason for this reaction is that the other side knows that in training the self-sufficiency out of the Free Riders, they now have assured their blind fealty.
The managers of the bus company have also felt that compassion. But they also are worried that almost half of the people now riding the bus are Free Riders, and the rest of the passengers, tired of picking up all the extra cost, are leaving the bus line. In fact, the bus line itself is in deep financial trouble, overrun with debt. The Free Riders and their Beautiful People know this; they have been told repeatedly. However, they're not concerned. They know they'll always be taken care of.
The next group I'll call "The Folks in the Middle." They have jobs, usually more than one. They have families and mortgages, bills and taxes. They pay the lion's share of the bus fares, and are willing to do so because the one thing they have most of all is compassion. They feel for the Free Riders, but in unguarded moments they wonder why they can find and work three jobs while the Free Riders can't seem to find even one. They're not sure when they got on this bus ride, and they really haven't ever thought about when their journey will end. Mostly because with all the concerns they have, there is no room for thoughts of the distant future. For them, the need is to keep moving down that road. Nothing else matters. To stand still is to die. They worry about their children, hoping desperately that they will grow up to be something more than just passengers.
Behind them sit the "Old Riders." These folks supported the bus company for decades. They fought wars to keep the bus line in operation. They suffered through lean times when buses just weren't available. They are sometimes irascible because they know they are losing the sense of independence that they worked so hard and long to achieve. They talk a lot, mainly about their past and their illnesses. There are some real gems of wisdom to be found in those words, but those gems are often buried under their caustic judgment of the other passengers who never suffered the way they did and thus are judged to be weak.
All the way in the back of the bus are "The Virtual Riders." These are young people who love technology. But their affection for those tools and the programs they run have pulled them into the virtual world of video games, social media, and global connectivity. When they are in that world, they are unreachable by any of the other passengers. In that Virtual World, they can control events, establish environments where they feel only comfort. The Real World has thus become an anathema to them because of its complexity and harshness. They have in many ways withdrawn from the world. Many of them, although well into adult ages, still live with their parents because those homes have also become places to hide. There they can avoid facing trial and adversity, suffering and privation. But also there, they will never learn self-sufficiency. Someday, their parents will die. When that happens, they will also die because they have no personal acquaintance with the mantra of the Old Riders and the Folks in the Middle, that in order to grow, you have to suffer; that in order to reach the top of a mountain, they must be willing to endure the pain of the climb. But they have become far to enamored with the comforts of life to brook any hardship.
This is our bus, our passengers, our community, roaring down the endless road in a bus veering violently from left to right and back again. Finally one of the drivers pulls too hard and the bus careens into the ditch alongside the road. Bucking and shaking, it finally grinds to a halt, thankfully without turning over. As the passengers pick themselves up off the floor, they suddenly get a rare unimpeded view of the front of the bus. The drivers are gone, but are seen through the windows hoofing away in opposite directions, pointing their fingers at each other, blaming the other for the catastrophe that has occurred. You see, the drivers aren't really concerned about the passengers. They just don't want to be blamed for the crash.
The Beautiful People stagger to their feet and immediately begin to shout to the rest of the passengers how their driver was not at fault, that it was the other driver that caused the accident. While thus engaged, they are taking out their super-duper sat phones and making calls. In a short while, limousines begin to arrive, picking up the Beautiful People and taking them to safety. All the while, the Beautiful People tell the rest of the passengers that they care deeply for their welfare and promise to send back help. But the passengers can't help but notice that those limos are huge vehicles with room enough to hold at least six or seven people, but none of the Beautiful People invite the passengers to share their vehicle. Because as it turns out, the Beautiful People really don't want anything to do with passengers. They aren't beautiful. They aren't intellectual. Passengers don't make scintillating conversation. And also, they consider passengers to be smelly and dirty and can't stand the thought of being in contact with the smells and the dirt.
The Free Riders look around anxiously. The drivers have fled, the Beautiful People have gone away, so there is nobody left to tell them what to do or how to think. They comfort each other by saying that the company will send out another bus, by and by.
The Folks in the Middle are up immediately. The first thing they do is to check on the other passengers, inquiring about injury, calming fears. But when that is done, they gather their belongings, exit the bus and begin walking down the road. There are children to get home to. There are jobs they can't be late for. They have bills that must be paid. So, they have to keep moving on down the road, because that is all they can do.
The Old Riders are the calmest. They have dealt with tragedy before, the crash in '29, fighting in Peleliu and Bastogne in '44. But they know that the only salvation is to begin walking, like the Folks in the Middle. But they are old, sick, and a shadow of their once-robust prime. For them, this is the end. And like the troopers they are, they face it with a grim certainty.
In the back, the virtual riders briefly look up from their computers and gaming devices. They see that the bus has stopped, but the challenge of survival that they now face is too hard and too complex. With a shrug, they return to their devices, sliding back into their virtual world.
Over time, all will meet a tragic end. The Beautiful People will return safely, but when it becomes known that they left the rest of the passengers beside the road, the outcry will force them away from their anchor desks and city desks. They will be ignored and reviled. And beautiful no more, they will fade from view, lonely, ignored, and irrelevant..
The Free Riders wait with the bus, anticipating another vehicle. But what they don't know is that the bus line itself has gone broke. The owners have jumped clear, sailing away on their golden parachutes, comforted by the knowledge that even though they ran the operation into the ground, they will still get their bonuses. There is no more money, so there will be no more buses. And because the drivers and the Beautiful People no longer need them, the Free Riders will be abandoned.
The Folks in the Middle will continue to walk down the road until they can walk no more. They will then crawl until they can crawl no more. They will eventually collapse, their bodies wasting away along the roadside as the night falls.
The Virtual Riders will flee to their virtual world. Locked into their games and apps, they will remain unaware of the disaster that has befallen them. They may faintly feel hunger, they may feel the cold of the night as it closes in, but they will not leave their virtual world. Eventually the batteries on their devices will fail. And then they will fail, like the batteries, their empty eyes staring into a real world for which they never had an ounce of comprehension.
Years will pass. Other buses from other bus lines will pass by, their passengers looking soberly at the rusting, empty carcass lying canted in the ditch. They will whisper to each other, "That was once the finest bus line in the land." They will talk about the fact that the survival of a bus line, or a country, has little to do with the driver or the Beautiful People.
Because no bus line can survive without passengers. It is the passengers who pay the bills. It is the passengers whose needs and desires mandate where the bus goes and when. The truth of this story, the moral, if you will, is that it is always the passengers who really run the bus.