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.

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