A few weeks ago I traveled to Charlotte on business. As I usually do, I struck up a conversation with the cab driver who took me from the airport to the office. He was from Ethiopia. We talked about the snow storm that had hit there 2 days before. 6-7 inches of the white stuff in a city that isn’t quite prepared for that.
“It was fun!” he said. “An adventure.”
I probed a bit more. “Everything is an adventure here. This country is so great. There’s so much opportunity.”
I asked him what his home country was like. “Those who are born rich die rich. Those who are born poor die poor. There’s no opportunity at all. The system is entirely corrupt. Here you can do anything you want if you work hard enough. There’s no reason to complain in this country.”
Strong words. Powerful words. From a man who knows what it’s like to live somewhere else. Somewhere where they can’t really freely vote, never mind protest. Where their work will get them nowhere anytime soon, according to him. This is a man who walks around every day grateful for the opportunity to have and create a better life for himself and his family.
What IS this country, this United States of America, that has people clamoring to get in, to make a new life for themselves? Is it the institutions? The documents? The 3 branches of government? Yes. Sort of. Unlike most other countries, this country was founded on an idea. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”
What an amazing idea! That everyone has the right to life. The right to liberty. The right to pursue happiness.
After a failed first attempt, our representatives finally wrote the document to spell out what that government should look like. What rights we hold as sacred. And what responsibility we have to preserve this “great experiment”, as Alexis de Tocqueville called this country in his book “Democracy in America”. Yes, our institutions and documents matter. Institutions provide support and sometimes funding for the work of democracy. Documents give us a framework within which to operate. Set the tone and the boundaries.
In the end, though, it’s really about us. Who we are. What we do to preserve this imperfect union and our great experiment.
Barack Obama echoed this sentiment in his final speech at Andrews Air Force Base just before he left. He said that the military isn’t a “thing”. It’s the people who have chosen to serve our country with honor and bravery. Our country isn’t an entity. It’s the people who work every day to support and defend our rights. It’s the people who care for one another, lifting each other up. Bringing light into dark places. It’s us.
How are we to form a more perfect union? My Charlotte cab driver offers some clues.
We have so much to be thankful for, not the least of which is our freedom. And no matter what may be wrong in our country, in our state, or in our life, we still have opportunities and advantages others couldn’t even dream of. We can work. Vote. Worship. We have reliable electricity and clean water. No one tells us how many children to have or takes our daughters as slaves. We can argue and demonstrate peacefully. We have abundant natural resources. Technology. The list is endless.
Don’t take it for granted. Be grateful every day for the food you eat, the clothes overflowing your closet. Everything. Practice gratitude like you would practice for an important speech, a basketball championship, an audition. With every fiber of your being. In every spare minute. Practice gratitude. Gratitude lights our hearts and warms the world.
Giving flows from a grateful heart. As we recognize how blessed we are and how abundant our opportunities, we give from that abundance. Even if we don’t see it right now.
A perfect example of that is this video.
Kids from low-income families were asked what they would like for Christmas. The gift was put in front of them. And then they had to choose whether they wanted that gift for themselves, or if they’d instead choose a gift for their mom or dad. You know what? Even though these kids didn’t have a lot, and really wanted the X-Box, laptop, or doll house, they chose to give to their mom or dad. Why? Because they were grateful for what they already have and the love their parents give them every day. And out of that gratitude they gave.
As I traveled to Charlotte, I was feeling discouraged and tired. Tired of my neck hurting and trips to physical therapy. Discouraged at the workplace drama that unfolds far too often, dragging me down. This cab driver’s attitude lifted my spirits. Made me glad to be an American and to be right where I was. In a taxi talking with a wonderful man with a big smile and bigger heart.
We can be that to each other. All it takes is intention and the ability to notice. Notice when someone seems to need a hand on their shoulder. A warm smile. A willing ear. One kind word can change someone’s entire day.
When I got in the cab, I was tired. Feeling trepidation for what I was going to encounter. I didn’t really want to be there. And it was the middle of the day, so I instinctively looked at my phone to see if there was anything critical I needed to address before I got to the office. I didn’t even see the cab driver. Really see him. I saw him only as a way to get around. Not a person.
Then I caught myself. Realized that I was in a car with another human being. Created in God’s image. Precious in his sight. And worthy of my respect. That’s when I talked with him. That’s when I found out where he was from. That’s when he told me about his family. That’s when we connected person to person, rather than customer to cab driver.
What does it take, this being respectful? Listening. Empathy. The recognition that we are no more or less special than anyone else. No matter what they look like. Sound like. Where they’re from. It’s easier in theory than it is in practice. We’ll never get this totally right. But it’s worth trying and learning and trying again. Disrespect for others robs us of our humanity. Respect builds our humanity. One encounter at a time.
This cab driver had traveled from Ethiopia to North Carolina seeking a better life. That was some adventure! And his attitude displayed that adventurous spirit. The spirit of America. Driving in the snow? An adventure. Finding a job? An adventure. Talking with a stranger? Another adventure. This can-do attitude made his smile and his spirit infectious. I went into the office with a lighter heart than I had when I got into the cab.
Even the mundane can be an adventure when we look for it. Imagine how many times a week this man picks people up in his cab. How many times he drives the same streets. How many times the customers ignore him. Are drunk. Or abusive. And yet there he is with sparkling eyes and a warm smile, and seeing his life as a great adventure. Such a lesson to you and me.
So as we continue down the path of this “great experiment” 241 years in the making, remember this: we are the people called to this time and place to be “we the people”. To continue to form this more perfect union. A union where we live out the 5 “be’s”:
The spirit of America is alive and well as long as it lives in our hearts and actions. Are we perfect? No. Can we be better? Yes. And to quote de Toqueville one more time:
The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.
Which of the 5 “be’s” are you going to focus on in this new year? Share in the comments.