Our Better Angels: Some thoughts on “the cab ride.”

It’s three a.m. I should be in bed and I certainly shouldn’t be blogging, because one’s sense of proportion is never very trustworthy during “the hour of the wolf.” But I’m mulling over a fascinating chain of events and thinking about their significance, so I thought I’d share my thoughts with you.

Last week several websites actually attributed my cab driving story to me. For those of you who don’t know, it is a story that I use in my book, Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace, to illustrate the line in St. Francis’ famous prayer, “And where there is sadness, joy.” The entire book is a series of ruminations/meditations on Francis’ beautiful prayer that begins, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”

I wrote the book about a decade ago as a kind of spiritual meditation. I took each line of the prayer and tried to find some exemplification of it in my own or other people’s lives. My thinking was simple: St. Francis, of all the religious figures of the past, is perhaps the most universally beloved. He is beyond sectarianism, beyond doctrine. And though he was thoroughly Christian — some would say, too Christian for the church of which he was a part — something in his deep humanity has resonated down the centuries and transcended theological differences. I felt that I could do myself some spiritual good by engaging in an extended meditation on the prayer that may be the most universally beloved on the planet.

It was, and remains, an uneasy book for me, because it is in no way Christocentric, which Francis most assuredly was. But he was also the most embracing of the Christian spiritual thinkers. I figured that if he met me, he’d probably find a way to enfold my spiritual strugglings into his faith, so why not work backwards, and use that faith to illuminate my spiritual strugglings? It proved to be a good choice: writing the book was one of the most clarifying experiences I have ever had as an author.

But, back to the cab story. In the book I tell the story of when I was driving a cab in Minneapolis and picked up a woman who was going to a hospice. We drove around all night at her request in what was very likely her last real journey through the outside world she was preparing to leave. It was one of those “blue moments,” as I call them, when some kind of spiritual light shines through the ordinary affairs of everyday life. As most of you know, this is one of the primary themes of my work as a writer.

Well, this cab driver story, in various iterations, has moved virally around the internet for years. It got changed, detached from the Francis book, and attributed to any number of anonymous and not so anonymous sources. It frustrated me, but I tried to listen to my better angels and take satisfaction in the fact that at least it was being read.

Then, last week, something happened. Several websites, primarily zenmoments.org, reddit.com, and something called, I believe, dooce.com picked it up. Within hours my website was being hit like it seldom has before. On the third day after the initial publication I had almost 49,000 hits. This has not happened since my postings on the Red Lake shootings a number of years ago.

What was interesting to me was the comments that people made in response to the story. There seemed to be two fundamental threads: “This is a beautiful story; I’m glad there are people like this in the world,” and “What a bunch of sappy, probably fictional, crap.” Well, though strange and improbable, it is not fictional. Anyone who’s ever driven a cab knows that things happen that are beyond belief.

But that’s neither here nor there.

What is important to me is that in this dichotomy of responses lies the human struggle that so many of us live on a daily basis. We want to be the good person who picks up the old woman, drives her around, and refuses payment for giving her the last ride of her life. And yet we are also the caustic, cynical, folks who pick at the world and carp about things that irritate us or upset us. As Walt Whitman said, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.” Or, to put it in St. Paul’s terms, “That which I would, I do not. That which I do, I would not.” We are simply complex creatures that contain both dark and light in us in varying degrees.

What I wanted to do in the Francis book was to bring out the light. I did not want to claim that I was light, or that I always lived in the light. Those who make such claims are either saints, or deluded, or disingenuous. And there are precious few saints among us.

The constant presence, and overwhelmingly positive response to the cab driver story tells me that there is, in almost all of us, a yearning for the light. We want to be the good person, the one who does the good thing, the one who makes the proper response to the situation. Yet, sadly, and far too often, we do not. That I did so in that moment in the cab back in the mid 1980’s does not make me a good person. It makes me a person who, for one moment, did something that was good. As a dear friend of mine once said, “Most people just slog through the world trying to be kind.” That’s what I was doing on that unexceptional August morning when an exceptional moment broke through the ordinariness of an ordinary day.

If I wrote a book about all the times I failed to do the right thing, or actually did something mean spirited or jerky, it would be far longer than the book of my better moments. But you don’t need to hear about those. You have your own mean spirited and jerky moments, and the world is full of folks who celebrate those moments by indulging their cynicism and skepticism. The cab drive story was a reminder to me, that I passed on to you, that we do have our better angels, and that we should assert them when we can. That the overwhelming majority of you appreciated the story is simply proof that we all feel better on those occasions when we do let our better angels have their voice.

In this time when dominance is praised as strength, where skepticism is often more prudent than trust, where disengagement is safer than engagement, we need to be reminded that the kind gesture that makes us vulnerable and serves no practical end is often the best gesture of all. The cab ride, for me, was one of those gestures.

I am pleased that so many people have found it. I only hope that they will follow it backward to the source. Forget the word, “Lord.” Replace it with whatever term you use for your understanding of the Creator or spiritual force that animates this universe. But don’t forget the next phrase: “Make me an instrument of your peace.” That’s what the world needs now. That’s what I was trying to be on that cab ride. That’s what I’ll try to be today.

I hope you will do the same.

41 comments

  1. Wendy says:

    Kent,
    You brought me to tears…’nuff said.
    Wendy

  2. Eric Read says:

    What a story to find early in the morning. I ordered and received your book on Thursday afternoon. After quickly skimming through it, I have placed it close by to begin reading next week. I delay because I am trying to finish Neither Wolf nor Dog. Thank you for all that you do.
    Eric

  3. Mark says:

    Kent,
    As always, you make me think, and feel, which, for me, sometimes borders between the miraculous and the terrifying.
    Having worked the ‘blue hours’ for many years I can tell you that more goes on, in the world, in your head, in your heart, than the average person would credit during these hours of the wolf. The vast majority of the world sleeps at night and knows litle, or wants to know, of the possibilities of the night.
    Further, as a thirty year veteran cop in a big city, I can also confirm that regular examples of the extremes of the good in us and the bad occur almost nightly. Cynicism is an occupational disease for cops, and the constant exposure to the bad side of humanity ruibs off, callouses our hearts, and,yes, we have our own demons to battle.
    But if I had a nickel for every act of good, self-sacrificing or selfless behavior I have been priviledged to witness, I would, indeed, have one great pocketful of nickels. Not just on the part of my brethern officers, but concerned citizens who, for a moment, drop their masks and offer succor, hope, concern, and open heart and a hand to someone who needs it.
    We are all dark and light, Kent, but even now I am proud and filled with wonder that I can say that I believe there is more of light, more of goodness, and more of the spark of the Creator within us than the darkness, if we only acknowldege it and let it shine forth from our souls.

    Peace on All your Paths,

    Mark

  4. Caroline says:

    Kent,
    I read the cab story last year (I don’t remember where), during a time where I was questioning everything in my life and wondering if I truly was making any difference in the world. The story resonated so deeply with both my husband and I. It struck a very deep place in me. The timing synchronized with my spirit. I’m walking my simple path again, feeling hope. Truly, every time I am fortunate enough to have a person open up and show some of their bare self to me, I am always amazed at the tenacity and courage of life and nature in all its forms.
    Thank you C

  5. Jane says:

    Thank you, Kent, I needed to hear this from you today. I hope you are enjoying a peaceful Feast of St. Francis. Peace be with you.

  6. Kerstin says:

    Kent –
    I have always loved your books. One of the first ones I read was “Letters to my Son” which I gave to my son Nicholas when he was a teenager. This past March, after re-reading “Small Graces” and hearing that sometimes annoying inner voice telling me that I had to give a talk at my church on that book (and after telling that voice it was nuts) I did give that talk and it was a wonderful experience.
    All of this leads me to the fact that just 2 days ago I started reading “Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace,” without having read either one of your blogs about the cab ride. I haven’t reached that part of the book yet, but I’m finishing this note to you and getting off the computer to go read the story.
    Thank you for all that you do.

  7. Ken,

    I was so delighted to read your “cab” story that I linked to it in my blog today.

    I’m more thrilled that I discovered you and your work. I admire the spiritual insights you pull from the practical. Now I’ll add your blog to my “must-reads.”

    Blessings to you in your work.

  8. Oops! Here’s the “t” that is missing from the end of your name in my last post.

  9. James says:

    Dear Kent,

    Inspiring piece, and insightful follow up. My favorite sentence (inadvertent?): “We are simply complex creatures…”

    Thanks,
    James

  10. I just read a Twitter post by Joe Trippi that linked to the Zen Moments version of your cab ride story, then, followed a link to your blog, and read these two posts on the original intent and subsequent effect of this story.

    I, too, want permission to republish the story. It is so inspiring.

    I founded the website, Good News Network, 11 years ago to collect (in one place) all the positive news from around the world.

    I have an Opinion section to which I could add your wise words.

    You could add a short bio of your choosing to the bottom, or/and an addendum that could explain the original context and link to the Francis book, too.

    I know it would be well-received by thousands of viewers on my site. Thanks for the inspiration…

    Geri Weis-Corbley
    Founder and Managing editor
    The Good News Network
    http://www.goodnewsnetwork.org

  11. 13rett says:

    Excellent story, I found it thought a program called Stumble Upon, I think that’s where most of your traffic came from

  12. Sean says:

    Nice story, you are a poor writer though, has to be said. The door shut, it was the sound of a life coming to end. More like a poorly written story coming to an end.

  13. ruth says:

    I said a simple prayer for Sean tonight. That whatever hardens his heart would be softened…

  14. Sean Orlowicz says:

    I was bored tonight so I came back to read more of this guys stuff. I don’t have a hard heart ma’am. I said it’s a nice story, wonderful message, beautiful gesture by the author, but I was coming from a literary standpoint, and I thought it was cheesy. But yeah, thanks for the prayer.
    Love Yall.

  15. David Weber says:

    Kent..I ran across the cab story while I was doing a series on the Francis prayer last fall (I’m a pastor). But I wanted to save it for the largest crowd of the year, the most open-hearted crowd of the year: our Christmas Eve service.

    So, jumping from Luke 2 into a brief explanation of God’s desiring always to be born again in human flesh, I told your story (with full attribution of course!)

    People knew how perfectly the story reflects the deepest truths I know- that awareness of the present reveals the kingdom of God near us all the time, and that NO outreaching deeds are too small.

    So, bless you for your awareness and outreaching, and thanks for helping me craft a well-heard message!

  16. Linda says:

    She was an angel. You experienced what God wants for each of us. To do His will and love others as He loves us. How I hope to have the patience and understanding if I am ever given the gift of a Blue Moment.

  17. I believe this type of story is going to become a type of mantra for 2009, “we need to step up and be the light he shines through”. I think prosperity creates fence-riders, and as times become harder people tend to move more dramaticly towards a positive outreach or a more negative selfishness. So works like this “The Cab Ride” are going to come back to the surface. I Thank God, for writers like you that work so continually to help us see who we can be.

  18. Patricia says:

    Over the past few days a number of small coincidences led me to this blog. Although I deeply respect your actions that night, as someone in her late fifties, I’m equally drawn to the woman. I find myself thinking about my “last days”. What if, due to some cosmic twist, today is indeed my last? What do I want it to say about me and how I have lived not just this day, but all the days that have comprised my life? I hope that somewhere in this day and in those to come, I too, will give or find some grace. Thank you Kent and all who have contributed to this blog for adding some grace to this day.

  19. Dan Sumption says:

    In my own insomniac blue hours I stumbled on the zenmoments site, and from there on to here. I just want to say that your story moved me to bittersweet tears. I hope one day I find myself in a situation where I am able to show such kindness as you did.

  20. Ashara says:

    I have been fascinated by the fact that all (most?) of us have a lovely side – frequently best foot forward, to start – and then a darker side, myself certainly included. Dealing with the battle between the two is sometimes wearing. I am glad that Kent is addressing this issue. I try to be honest with people that I am a “well rounded individual”, neither good nor bad nor neither nor both – just a holographic image containing so many elements and contradictions that noone, including me, myself, can ever see the whole of me. Blessings, all, in your search, your quest, your queries.

  21. Kelly says:

    Kent,

    That was a touching story, thanks for sharing it.

  22. Serena says:

    As an occasional recipient of the kindness of strangers myself, each kindness having brought that priceless moment of joy to me you wrote about, I’m grateful for you, Kent. You gave this wonderful gift of clarity to those in society capable of both understanding and growth made possible through exposure to your message. Thank you and God bless you!

  23. Leo says:

    Kent,

    These days all I’ve been seeing are the negativity and harshness of the world we live in. It has somehow kept me from feeling, doing kind actions, and boxing myself from all this to the point of being a pessimist. Just now after reading your Cab story, I got really moved by it. Don’t really know how I managed to come to your blog but to me your story gave me some light today. God bless to you and your wonderful insights!

  24. In Zulu I would say, with hands clasped and in the 3rd person denoting mindful respect: ‘Siyabonga kakhulu’ We thank you deeply. Your cab story and your mantra- ” Lord let me be an instrument of your peace” moves me deeply. I have happened upon it a number of times of late. Especially serendipitous as in reflecting back on my life, I have been writing that life has been like a fascinating taxi ride – sometimes as passenger and sometimes as driver. I draw parallels with our infamous kombi taxis. In reading your cab story,(over and again) I have found new ways of being, seeing and doing in my writing. May my ‘unblock’ last! May your words continue to flow.May you be much blessed and know abundance of loving kindness.

  25. Pardes says:

    I am very happy to have found your blog. It is always nice to find kindred spirits.

    I came here via a link from “Zen Moments” about your story “Cab Ride.” …truly a moment of materialized Grace for everyone involved and everyone who reads it…

    I have to ask. Did you ever go back to the Hospice facility?

  26. Blossom says:

    Icame across your cab driving story in a newsletter from Buttoned up.com. What a great story. So touching, and a reminder that a random act of kindness can make all the difference in one person’s life. Also a great reminder to treat everyone we meet with patience and kindness, because you never know what a person may be going through in their life.

  27. Andrea says:

    Dearest Kent,
    I pulled off a coup at my secular high school’s graduation — since I was valedictorian as well as the head of the school guitar ensemble, they gave me free rein with my choice of songs to sing at Commencement. When I revealed the title at the very last possible moment (to avoid veto), the administration okayed it, perhaps out of pity for my arm being in a cast from surgery (and knowing I would have to manage fretting the guitar somehow around the cast). I also had a biology teacher on board, as I chose her to be my guitar and singing partner; I knew her through her husband, the physics teacher’s, evening seminar series “The Scientist as Humanist.” When everyone learned that the song I chose, after much deliberation, was “The Prayer of St. Francis,” I actually think everyone took it in the same generalized, a-religious, highly personal meditation of seeking from the universe that which will shape us into being the best people we can be, making the best contributions we can make in our local communities and in the world at large. Very fitting for a launch of new graduates into the labor force and higher ed.

    For me personally, St. Francis and the prayer associated with him, stands out for precisely the same reasons you have focused on this as a lifelong meditation. In my worst moments, such as when a dear young friend died, I spent some time lost in the confusion of grief. Then Jungian principles articulated by Edward Whitmont in ‘The Symbolic Quest’ hit the nail (yes, loaded crucifixion term) on the head: that no matter how bad things get, the imperative is to find meaning (whichever unique meaning resonates with the individual in his/her situation), and–almost more importantly (though so under-recognized in our superficial consumerist society)–is that even in times of comfort and plenty, “a lack of internal meaning is intolerable.”

    Delving a few layers into The Prayer of St. Francis… if what I am praying to be is an instrument of peace, if what I am praying to have is the chance to take on pain to spare others from having to suffer, if what I am praying to do is bring more than just compassion to people — but the actual, experiential empathy that seems to comfort best… then what am I complaining about when things are rough?!

    Through The Prayer of St. Francis, a person invites all of these challenges to burden our path, to even block our path entirely via all manner of want for resources and ethical dilemmas… “count it all joy when ye are faced with diverse trials, for it works patience” (amongst other feelings and values, both frustrations and virtues!) So, The Prayer of St. Francis is a calling out to the universe that I am open to all experiences, especially the difficult ones, which ultimately will shape me into the most useful instrument of comfort to others, the most abundant channel of divine peace to the world.

    Kent, I looked up this website tonight because I am participating in a Facebook political activism page where we are asked to list the most influential books in our lives, and the first one that came to mind is your “Neither Wolf nor Dog.” I have to first confess that I am already very committed to supporting indigenous rights, both here and abroad; and, my academic mentor is a veteran Army lieutenant colonel, turned diplomat, turned professor after completing his PhD — Dr. Colin Kim Winkelman, elder of the Oglala band of the Lakota people on Pine Ridge Reservation. But, beyond what I have already learned and incorporated into my life about Lakota lifeways and spirituality, your book allowed me the chance to cower in the backseat during that heavens-bursting thunderstorm, to sit on the stoop where you waited for at least something to happen or to be said at some point in “time,” to experience a truly enlightening way of living as seen through the eyes of your character as narrator, losing my patience alongside you, and not fully understanding the simple yet vital cultural lessons until you did. Your shoes have traversed many, many miles considering all of us readers who have embarked on that Lakota journey on those soles. So, with a container of foot powder in one hand and a packet of ceremonial Prince Albert in the other, I salute you, friend — or, as the Nepalese say it best: namaste = I bow to the sacred within you.

    Allow me to close with the Lakota prayer of oneness, Mitakuye Oyasin, all my relations.
    May we all prepare ourselves to be an instrument of peace, seeking unity and solidarity with one another.

    –Andrea Speranza, former adjunct professor at New Hampshire Technical Institute — Concord’s Community College

    Dr. Kim, as he is known, teaches through NHTI’s online program from his home base in Pine Ridge; perhaps you will both have the honor of crossing paths on your next visit to South Dakota.
    As for my chance to meet you, I was so very sorry to miss your appearance at NHTI last year, but I have been battling a long illness and was physically unable to attend. I held your book in my hand that day, though, so perhaps there was some quantum entanglement in that 😉

  28. I have experienced these little oddities that life throw us, and I truely believe that these are the in-between-moments in time that make all the rest worthwhile.

    I am not religious and not very spiritual either, but I am constantly amazed by the richness of life and the little gems you find if you remember to look.

    I dont believe one can live in a constant state of bliss; it seems impractical, but I treasure the moments like the one you had on your cab ride, where time stands still and everything is embued with Meaning ……

    Awesome writing as well. It helps that there is something real behind the sentences ……

  29. Sheila says:

    Well, your cab ride story is now on facebook..so you will probably recieve another onslaught of comments and book orders! I loved it..checked it out to see if it was a “true” story, and found your site…Thank You! And now I’m sharing the story..along with your comments on the book, and your link.

  30. jena ardell says:

    Beautiful life experience/story. Glad you are finally getting recognition from it. Unfortunately, the internet is an infamous source of theft and non-attribution. At least your message is reaching more people!! Thank you so much for sharing it.

  31. Helga says:

    You really did bring me to tears. I’ve been questioning my belief for a while now, but I think that while there are people who take time out of their daily lives to do something kind or help another living being (human or animal) even if they don’t dedicate their lives to it but only do it occasionally, the world is a better place, and that desire to do good, that lives within at least most of us, that to me is a supreme being, and I don’t care what name you give to that being.

  32. Mark says:

    Not sure if you know it yet, but it seems your story is now “A NYC Taxi driver…” and hit Facebook a little while ago. Expect another jump in traffic.

  33. Paula says:

    Beautiful story with a beautiful lesson. Thank you for being there for the dear woman in the cab.

    One thing I do not understand, though….why do you say, “Forget the word, “Lord”? Just as it is right to give you credit for your wonderful story, is it not right to give Jesus Christ credit for being the Lord who inspired St. Francis, and so yourself? Of course you did do that, but why stop just before encouraging others to draw near to the Source from whom all that good comes?

    Again, thank you. As Mark said (and his is my favorite comment), you have caused me to think and feel–in a day when I have been otherwise mostly busy.

    God bless you for sharing your heart!

  34. Jolyn says:

    Thank you for your story. I am going to post it on my site and make sure you get the credit you deserve for it. Thanks again for sharing it.

  35. Ruth says:

    Kent,

    I found the “cab ride” piece by way of a friend’s facebook link to the “Homestead Survival” blog which published it. HS subsequently posted the link to YOUR blog, and thanks to them!! More so, thanks to you for writing it. It’s personal for me.

    I am a cab driver in a town of 10,000 where, in only 3 months, I’ve come to meet many intriguing people, many of them elderly, in homes or with spouses or parents in hospice. I’ve been honored to provide transportation for these folks, and your story quite literally touched my heart. I quickly realized that you NEVER know who is on the other side of that door, and I decided on a “no honking” rule – I go to knock instead.

    I’m sharing your story with everyone I know. Then I’m ordering a couple of your books, the first to read, “Make Me An Instrument of Your Peace”.

    I thank the internet society which brought your story into my life! I hope you have more and more followers as this one story goes viral!

  36. Elaine says:

    You may not think you are a “good” person, but you are. You may not be perfect, as none of us are. You may have done things that are so “good”, but the inherent goodness that recognized a lonely lady and showed compassion for her, proves that within you lies more than one moment of goodness. Even just one moment of goodness can mean the world to someone else. If every person only did just one moment of goodness…..

    Thank you

  37. Elaine says:

    I missed the word.. not.. so good, in the third sentence. Apparently my attention to words typed is not so good =)

  38. Karen says:

    Hello,

    I read your story on memebase.com (silly comedy website) and I literally cried. It is a lovely story and I think you did a very kind thing. I was very surprised that it made the front page of that particular website but also very happy.

  39. Kent,

    This story is still making the rounds on the social network. I read it again today for the 2nd time and it touches a true part of my heart. I can imagine the drive, I can imagine the little lady, the places she wanted to see and how incredibly much that truly meant to her. For you to do this out of the kindness of your heart and realize it was very possibly “her last ride” is almost overwhelming to think about. There is a part of us all that would love to have been you and enjoyed that time with her, and all we can do is stay close to our loved one’s and family and hopefully be there for them when they want us and need us. It was a story about real people helping each other and I will never forget it. I remembered it today as I started to read it the 2nd time, I knew exactly what it was going to say….you touched my life and I thank you so much for sharing your life with us.

  40. knerburn says:

    Few people other than cab drivers know the human drama in its fullness.

  41. knerburn says:

    I wrote from within my own heart. I admire those who commit to Christianity in a different and, perhaps, richer way than I. But I must write from my own center of belief. Thanks for writing, Paula.

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