The Parable of the Bus


November 2016
Ivan Obolensky

Imagine you are on a bus. You are a passenger and the bus travels over a mountain range. You have a window seat a few rows back from the driver. The bus is full of other passengers. You look out the window and marvel at the shifting landscape. Fields give way to foothills. Foothills give way to pine forests as the bus climbs up a series of switchbacks. Finally, you reach the summit of a high mountain pass. There is snow up here and no trees. Here the bus stops, and the passengers are allowed to get out, stretch their legs, and take pictures. The vista is breathtaking. After fifteen minutes your journey resumes, and the bus begins to descend through another series of switchbacks. The first thing that strikes you is that the bus is going a little faster than is comfortable. Someone behind the driver comments that he is driving a little too fast as well. This becomes apparent to all when the tires screech in protest as they lose traction around a wide turn. The bus sways from side to side. A bag falls out of the overhead rack. It is quickly put back up. The noise level in the bus rises. The passengers are nervous. They’re whispering. That unease doubles when you hear the driver laughing. Why should he be laughing? It’s not funny.

The road smooths out and calm is restored. The bus begins to ascend again before it reaches a lesser apex. It descends the other side through a series of even steeper and narrower switchbacks. Once again the bus picks up speed. The driver is loving it. He’s smiling and madly spinning the wheel. Your fear mounts, but what ratchets it up the most is that the driver does not seem to know what he is doing. He is pushing buttons on the control panel in a seemingly random fashion. Overhead lights turn on and then switch off, a horn sounds and stops, the air from the vents grows weaker and stronger. Why is the driver messing with that right now, you wonder? His shifting prowess is not so good either. The gearbox regularly grinds in protest. Finally, the bus stops because the switchback curve is so narrow and tight that the bus has to reverse to navigate it. Everyone’s attention is on the driver because he can’t seem to find the reverse gear. Each time he tries, the bus inches forward closer to the edge rather than moving away from it. At last he finds it and the bus lurches backwards. The back of the bus hits the guard rail, but the driver doesn’t notice, or chooses not to. He pops into first gear with another lurch and rapidly accelerates. Little cries escape the lips of your fellow travelers as the bus picks up speed. They are scared. The driver is aware of this.

He calls out in a high nervous voice, “Don’t worry folks, I’m getting the hang of it!”

Whatever pretense of calm is lost with those few words. Fear is now replaced by terror, bordering on panic. What is flashing through everyone’s mind is pictures of the bus going over the edge, picking up speed on the way down, and bursting into flames. Death is around the next corner.

Inevitably the bus careens over an edge and tumbles down a slope. All the passengers can do is hang on, but there is no fiery death. The bus crunches to a halt at the bottom of a gorge by a stream. The passengers scramble out.

The driver calls for calm, but no one is listening to him. They get out as quickly as they can.

The first thing they notice is the silence. There is no sound from the bus other than random ticking as the engine cools. You pull out your cell phone. No signal. Now what? You start talking to your fellow passengers. You find out the person that was sitting next to you is named Bill. Behind you were Mary and Bob. They’re retired. They are just as happy to be alive as you are, and on it goes.

This story has been written and filmed a thousand times in various guises and with varying outcomes. It is called survival.

Universally, one of the first things survivors realize is that nothing is happening around them. Everything is still. Their routines and travel plans are in ruins with no means of communication to the outside world. There is nowhere to go, no people to see. They have time to think. They ask questions. How did this happen? Why them? What does this mean? How will their lives be changed? How do they fit into this new reality? Everyday people are transformed into philosophers. Strangers turn into companions. The world resets. Realities are adjusted. Uncertainty turns into a certainty: they are where they are. Boredom eventually replaces fear. The nights are cold, but the day is warm. What do we do now?

I could end the story here, and that might be enough for a story, but readers will see it as a grim outcome in a world filled with similar outcomes; one more crash and burn. However, real life does not end like a story with a period, or a ‘THE END’ in capital letters. Life’s story always continues because that is what life does. It continues, and it is here at the bottom of the gorge that life and history shine at their brightest. One philosopher/comedian once quipped that the real positive in lying flat on your back at the bottom of a pit is that everything looks up from here. And it does. There is no other time when the future is more positive, the world more congenial, the risk worth taking. Nothing to lose really means everything to win. It is the greatest truth; the hardest to understand; the most difficult to believe.

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© 2016 Ivan Obolensky. All rights reserved. No part of this publication can be reproduced without the written permission from the author.

  1. Craig Houchin
    Craig Houchin11-02-2016


    What a fun article! And just the right philosophy for those of us in the U.S. who are beginning to feel “the bus” pick up speed on the downhill swing of this election! Ha!

  2. Vanessa

    This is fantastic!!! Yes, I agree with Craig’s comment too. Your article is a wonderful reminder, when we get so ingrained in the day to day, nervous about the future, is that, really, all we have to fear is fear itself. Refreshing article as always! Thanks!

  3. Gilles

    I will add that we also need to cultivate our resilience, we will take the bus again… As the Japanese say : “Nana korobi ya oki” (Fall seven times, stand up eight)

    Thanks for the article

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