Richard Risemberg has been asking me for about a year to write an article for the The Bike People. My lack of response thus far does not reflect a lack of willingness but instead of time. At the end of the spring semester, though, and before the beginning of summer school, I wanted to take the time to organize some of the thoughts I reflect on when I'm cycling. And without at all planning things this way, I am grateful that this will contribute to the first anniversary issue of The Bike People.
I am a theology teacher, a vegetarian, and a cyclist. Owning these are as close as I will ever get to experiencing what it is like to be peripheralized in America. (And yes, "teacher" counts as much as "vegetarian" and "cyclist." If you don't think so, see if you can finish the following sentence: Those who can, do; those who can't....) What follows is a reflection on what this has to do with service to others.
The Lambs and the Lions
My wife Sally shares the abovementioned characteristics with me, and we just completed our first tandem tour. She is a few years behind me on the cycle-curve. I am fortunate enough to be able to cycle-commute and got bit with the solo bike-tour bug before she did, but apart from that, we share these attributes equally. This past winter we purchased a Cannondale RT1000 and a YAK B.O.B trailer. The day after graduation we placed our three sons in the care of an undergraduate and began pedaling south from South Bend on our way to visit friends just north of Indianapolis. I had done some riding and lots of driving in this territory before, and thought it best to avoid the major north-south US highway in favor of longer but less frenetic county roads. I was wrong.
We will never forget the trucker on Indiana Route 10 who, immediately after passing us, fixed us in his side-mirror sights, drove his cab halfway onto the shoulder, and waited for the end of his trailer to swat us into the ditch--like a modern-day version of the ancient dinosaurs who used to walk these same fields. It will be a little easier to forget the waiter (but only because it happens more often) who could not comprehend our inquiry about whether any menu items could be delivered without meat. (In urban restaurants I occasionally ask for dishes without "dead animals," but I knew that this would not go over in rural Indiana.) It will be less easy to forget the high school students who exited their parking lot inches, not feet, from the YAK. And it will be absolutely impossible to forget the leer of the man who approached the intersection from our right, slowed to let us proceed, and then jumped on the gas as we did so, only to stop 3 feet from us.
I do not intend these recollections as a whine. Nor, more especially, do I intend them as a description of Indianans in particular or midwesterners in general. They are nothing more than illustrations of how bicyclists (and vegetarians) are marginalized by our society.
Candles in the Darkness
My primary profession in life is being a theology professor. I did not fall into this profession either by accident or because I could not successfully do anything else. I became a theology professor because it was the best way for my character, my particular way of being human, to serve others. So too, I now see in retrospect, my commitments to letting animals live and to riding a bike. What ties these together, I think, what makes them identical expressions of the same character, is that they all intend to respect the integrity of others as they are, as they exist when I encounter them.
As a theology professor, my intention is not to get people to alter their particular ways of being religious around some predetermined axis, as though because "the Bible" or "the Church" or "the Bishop" says so, therefore they must do so. It is instead to give them the tools critically to inspect their own religious beliefs and actions for themselves, and then ask themselves the question, "Is this the way I want to be?" Whether the answer to the latter question is "yes" or "no," the only thing that counts in the long run is that they asked it maturely in the first place.
As a vegetarian, it is not my intention to guilt others into becoming vegetarians themselves. It is rather to be a living model for how not eating animal flesh yields a greater respect for life in all of its diversity. I could not simultaneously affirm sentient life and eat it. I could not simultaneously sympathize with the world's deficient nutritional resources and continue to eat food that disproportionately consumed those resources. I could no longer affirm those who insisted that animal protein was essential to produce human protein in the face of the observation that every land-animal they ate was itself a vegetarian. And so I ceased eating dead animals. I did not make others do so; when Sally and I are eating with friends who do not know our preferences and who serve meat, we eat it because that is the best way to honor their hospitality and grace. But when things are up to us, we also try to honor the animals.
The same intention is, I think, ultimately behind my decision to cycle rather than drive. All sorts of shorter-term values come together in that decision: staying in shape (I'm nearly 47), reducing congestion and pollution, reducing the loss of unrecoverable natural resources, and just plain having fun. At the root of them all, though, is my hope to serve others. Living according to each of these shorter-term values results, however insignificantly, in someone else's enhancement. (OK, maybe the having fun is mine alone).
I hate to have to admit it, but I came to the conclusion that cycling is also an expression of my commitment to service only very recently. What unexpectedly came along with this realization was a serious reduction in my aggressive riding, which I hope is on its way to zero. I'm not a passive cyclist--far from it--but I no longer think that my calling as a cyclist is identical with making motorists yield to me. Instead, I am increasingly convinced that letting them simply see me ride regularly and happily is my way of encouraging them to think about their own decision to drive. And if I can do that, then, as with pondering God or eating animals, I think that I have provided the greatest service I can to others.
No One Ever Rides Alone
Is this going out too far on a limb, to connect cycling and service? Can't it instead simply be a person's personal druthers, with no social strings attached? Yes, surely it can. I'm not at all unhappy with that thought, if for no other reason than that it is how and why I began my own commitment to cycling. But I am also convinced that it is not merely making much ado about nothing to say that wider and deeper values can be at work in one's decision to cycle.
I began these reflections by noting that being a committed cyclist is one way of being peripheralized in America. I hope that this will not always be the case, but in my opinion, it surely is now. And as long as this is the case, we cyclists have to decide why we are and will remain cyclists. As you think about this, you surely do not have to come to the same conclusions as I have. But I would be grateful if these ideas triggered your own similar reflections. And I would be especially grateful if some of you collected them into similar articles to publish in The Bike People in the future.
See you on the road.
Kern R. Trembath, Ph.D., Assistant Chairman
Department of Theology
The University of Notre Dame