God’s surprises

No anecdotes or homilies tonight. Just some random thoughts.

If there is a challenge before us during these times, it is to find a place between cynicism, where we know what’s wrong with everybody, and ideology, where we know what’s right for everybody. And to make this a place of more than empty tolerance, where the equal acceptance of all actions and points of view is seen as a positive moral value.

The plain fact is that there simply are better and worse ways to live; more and less worthy ways to pay our rent for the time we are given on this planet. Struggling to find the most worthy way available to us is each of our life’s spiritual task.

I think, in the last analysis, the challenge comes down to finding a fit spiritual vehicle through which to express universal values. Charity, love, kindness, helping the weak, giving hope to the children and peace to the elderly — these are the kinds of values I mean.

Embedded in all the great religions, and many of the lesser ones, and, I would venture, in the human heart itself, is the belief that we are only fully realized when we lift the weak among us and help them along their path. It can be done in a million ways — by service, by conscious prayer, even, in the minds of some, by fighting against evil. But defining evil is a dangerous thing, and this course may the most fraught with peril of any.

Still, we must make our choice and act with clarity. For my own tastes, it is the person who continuously makes the small caring gesture in the course of daily affairs who is the most worthy footsoldier in the army of the spirit. Such people are doing simple good for the world, and shaping their spirits by outward action.

It’s people like these who make my days pleasant and hopeful, and keep me from fully embracing a life of cynicism or ideology. They simply come in too many shapes, sizes, colors, and beliefs.

Sometimes surprise is the greatest gift of the spirit. Going through the day being open to God’s surprises seems the healthiest way to walk a path through the confusion of life. And it’s a worthy thought to put in my mind right before sleep.

Until later . . .

A small gesture

I’m in one of those delightful and all-too-infrequent author moments when I’m inside the work and being carried along by it, rather than dragging it behind me or pushing it up a hill, Sisyphus style, like some excruciatingly heavy stone. So I don’t want to take too much time away from this magical stretch on my Joseph book to post to my weblog, but I do want you to know I’m still here and plugging away.

I’ll content myself with a short observation about yesterday. As Road Angels readers know, and others would probably be appalled to find out, I am a lover of cars. There is no greater pleasure for me than to be asked by a friend who hates cars or is terrified of car salesmen to find a used car for him or her. I will drive a hundred miles to look at a likely prospect, will go over the beast with gimlet-eyed precision looking for paint overspray, hidden ball joint wear, and the subtlest signs of mistreatment. I will find old receipts hidden under floor mats, read the scratch patterns on the paint, utilize a million tricks of observation and questioning to find the real reason behind the selling of the car. And I don’t get tricked often.

But I do get tricked occasionally.

My current car, a 93 Mitsubishi Diamante station wagon, is my Ur-car. It is my ideal vehicle in terms of ergonomics, road manners, balance between form and function, and driving characteristics. In over fifty cars owned in my life, the Diamante wagon is my favorite. And therein lies a sorry tale.

My first Diamante wagon, which I had driven for over 100,000 miles, and was now moving toward 200,000 total miles, finally became sufficiently long of tooth to warrant its disposal. Then, when it slid off my driveway in an ice storm and descended into a woods, scraping and rippling its side from rear quarter panel to the front door, its fate was sealed. Still indomitable and tough, it was now a car I was happy to sell to friends who were a bit down on their luck. I then went out to find another 93 wagon.

The long and short of the story is that a friend and I drove to a town near Chicago where a dealer had one he was selling fairly cheaply (they are a very rare car in the edition with leather seats, CD, and sunroof, and you must travel a pretty mile to find one). It was hot, the drive had been long, and I wanted that car. But, just as one should never seek a girlfriend or boyfriend who looks just like your previous partner, one should never try to re-create a car experience. You are trying to get something that no longer exists, and what you get will be measured against a memory rather than measured against itself.

But I didn’t listen to my own counsel. I bought the car, and 24 miles from the dealership, on the interstate between Chicago and Milwaukee, it blew up. Smoke, steam, redlined temperature guage — a moment from automotive hell. Add in Sunday afternoon, 90 degree temperatures, and eighteen wheelers roaring by two feet from where I was standing, and I almost lost it.

The dealer, unfortunately, turned out to be one of the sort that makes my friends terrified to deal with car salesmen — a greasy sociopath who would not give me my money back and had no concern that I was stuck 500 miles from home with a dead car and a $2900 hole in my pocket. “You bought it ‘as is,'” he said, and went back to eating a hamburger.

The tale goes from bad to worse. But I will skip to the end, where I finally got the car back to northern Minnesota where my shade tree mechanic — a diagnostic wizard with a global understanding of automotive mechanical and electrical systems — spent months trying to get the thing running. Two days of running, two weeks in the shop. Two days of running, two weeks in the shop. Water pumps, alternators, temperature sensors, gaskets and seals of all shapes and functions, coils — every part that was not deep inside the engine. Needless to say, it was not a cheap experience, either in terms of time or spent emotions. What was worse was that my mechanic lost money, too, because he was too good a man to charge me full price for all his efforts. So, no one was coming out ahead except the sociopath in Lake Villa, Illinois.

Finally, my mechanic gave up. He did not have the ten thousand dollar diagnostic equipment necessary to make a final run at the problem. Reluctantly and apologetically, he towed it to a shop twenty five miles away that had better diagnostic capabilities. (For those of you wondering why I didn’t just go to a dealer, the nearest Mitsubishi dealer is 150 miles away, and getting it there while not running was obviously not feasible.)

Again, to cut to the chase, these mechanics, with the luck of the blind pig looking for the acorn, found the last link in the chain of the problem — a sporadically shorting out coil wire — and my car was running, once and for all, in only a day.

My car has now been running for over a month. I am beginning to trust it and like it every bit as much as I had hoped I would. So yesterday afternoon I drove back to the shop and sought out the mechanic who had diagnosed the coil problem. Anyone who has sent a customer out the door with a repair knows that the sight of that customer returning creates a knot in the stomach. I could see that knot written on the mechanic’s face as I approached. Knowing this, I walked up and said, “I just wanted to come by to thank you. The car is running great, and it’s because you had the skill to find something that had eluded other people. I want you to know how much I respect your knowledge and what you do.”

The mechanic looked at me dumfounded. Something had just happened for which there was precious little precedent in his experience: someone had come back and thanked him.

I’ve found over the years that those “thank you’s” to the daily workers in our lives are among the simplest, most effective, acts of kindness we can perform.

Think about it. When was the last time someone came back to you a few weeks or months after you had dealt with them and thanked you for what you had done? It doesn’t happen very often. And it feels great when it does.

The wonderful thing about this kind of “thank you” is that the less well you know the person you are thanking, the more effective that “thank you” is in bringing a good feeling to their heart. You are doing something that is unnecessary because of friendship, unnecessary for any ulterior motive, unnecessary for any reason at all. It is an act of pure volition, an act of going out of your way, to recognize someone for something they did. And it is appreciated in proportion to its unexpectedness.

Now, I am not a particularly saintly guy, despite what people who read my books might think. But I try to be a kind person if I can, and I try to recognize the ordinary people in life who try to do their best for others. The world is full of greasy sociopaths who sell us cars that blow up, and they stick in our craws and fill us with helpless rage. But it is also full of ordinary Joes and Joans who slog through the world trying to be kind. The “thank you” when it is unexpected is one of the gestures we can make to honor the goodness in each other.

Doing our jobs, raising our kids, trying to be a good husband or wife, can often seem like thankless tasks. Being the person who says “thank you” is a way to turn that feeling of thanklessness into a feeling of pride and gratitude. It’s a way to keep a good heart beating in an often indifferent and heartless world. And the opportunity is waiting for all of us somewhere just down the street.