Creating a Bus Ride of Zen

I recently took a trip to visit family. They live in a large city. The trip was during the hottest time of the year. There is something about the lack of trees, the reflection of the sun on windows and concrete and riding hot public transportation with hundreds of equally sweaty people that can make me feel like I am being forced to listen to fingernails on a chalkboard.


Hot bus, summer in the city

In the middle of one of these hot afternoons, I found myself on a city bus on my way back to my family’s apartment. Trying to forget about my aching feet and beads of sweat that would not go away, I closed my eyes. However, my attempts at finding a moment of zen were harshly and frequently interrupted. Every few blocks when the bus driver would open the doors to let people on and off (and keep the doors open for some unknown reason), there was a seemingly-endless round of the following noises:

  • The “stop requested” bell – repeating itself at one-second intervals
  • A recorded female voice saying “please exit through the rear door” – repeating itself at two-second intervals

I expected the bus driver make a general announcement: “stop repeatedly pressing the stop requested button!” No announcement – the dings continued. I expected a bus rider to yell “stop repeatedly pressing the stop requested button!” No yelling – the dings continued.

I decided this out-of-towner needed to take matters into her own hands. I looked around the bus to see if I could send the “stop repeatedly pressing the button” message to someone. I determined the culprit. It was not what I expected. I expected that someone was knowingly bothering the bus or that a technical glitch was happening. What I discovered was neither.

A boy (about 13 years old) was holding one of the polls where the waist-level “stop requested” buttons was located. He was mindlessly and obliviously doing what I could only call the “belly bump” with the “stop requested button.” He was riding solo, so he was not trying to impress his friends with his “belly pressing” skills. I believe on this hot day he had found his own moment of zen in his mindless swaying and leaning. However in his zen state, his ears had become temporarily disconnected.

These discoveries happened in a matter of seconds for me, so for the next few seconds I tried to imagine the scenarios in which the annoying noises would stop. As I mentioned, no announcements or communications were being made to the boy. I was pretty far away from him, so I did not want to scar him for life by yelling across the bus “Hey kid, your belly is ringing the bell. Cut it out!” I did mumble to the guy next to me “that kid’s belly is ringing the bell” in hopes that my seat-mate would have less compunction about yelling something to the boy (he did not). I had an idea that people who live here should take action first, as opposed to an out-of-towner like me. I wanted to do something – but I felt pretty helpless…and irritated.*

The bystander effect

After I got off the bus, I got a flashback from freshman year psychology 101 class. We learned about the ‘bystander effect.’ This term describes a psychological phenomenon when individuals do not offer to help a victim when other people are present. And generally, the more bystanders, the less likely it is that any one of them will help. One explanation for this is that people feel the responsibility is diffused when others are around.

It was clear that no one (not even me) stepped forward to stop that boy from ringing the bell with his stomach. Maybe this was an example of the bystander effect (albeit there was no real harm being done, which is perhaps why none of us stopped the boy. Plus many of us may have thought that stopping the boy would cause harm through embarrassment to the boy. So this situation was ambiguous in those ways). Nevertheless, since I had this occasion to think about the bystander effect – I started applying it to my life as a nonprofit geek.

Kudos to you

It occurred to me that people who work for nonprofit organizations are not bystanders. Each one has jumped in to help; to right a societal wrong; to work on making the world a better place. You have made altruistic and activist choices – and I am giving a big nonprofit geek standing ovation to you for that. Hooray for you!

And there is something else that has earned you bigtime geek points from this nonprofit geek. Your activism has compelled you to learn ways to help even more! (You are reading this blog, aren’t you?) As Dacher Keltner, Ph.D. of the Greater Good Science Center says:

“… much of the bystander research suggests that one’s personality only determines so much. To offer the right kind of help, one also needs the relevant skills or knowledge demanded by a particular situation.”

So feel good! Feel good for helping (and not standing by) and for learning more ways to help. You are making the world a better place – with more bus rides of zen and less annoying ‘dings.’ Thank you for your work with nonprofit organizations.

*So what did I do? I pulled out my cell phone and recorded it so I could maybe smile about it later.


Photo Credits:

Brett Weinstein, Sundown on a City.

Howard Brier, Coney Island and Brighton Beach

Creative Commons License


What would you have done on this bus trip?

Do repeated noises bug you too? Or is it just me?