The August doldrums, defined as a time of low spirits or a feeling of depression, are here. I seem to be experiencing this as I listen to the continual and increasingly reactive rhetoric of our president. The unending campaign coverage (knowing the first primaries and caucuses are months away). The continued restrictions on immigrants and on women's health choices. The reluctance to address the climate crisis with the urgency it needs.
Imagine my surprise when an unexpected encounter sliced through this atmospheric pressure within me and released a surge of fresh air and energy.
It took place at 4:30 a.m. on the way to the airport. My Uber driver and I started talking. He was probably in his late 20s and has a 2-year-old daughter. As conversations go, it wasn't exactly linear. But what I learned about him was interesting.
His Uber job is full time. He isn't interested in buying lots of material things but does want to get more than $15 an hour, which driving for Uber lets him achieve. He told me about a friend of his who has been working for a motel chain for more than four years. She doesn't even make $15 an hour; they are hiring in new people at a higher rate but won't give her a raise or benefits — which bothers him greatly.
He has a bachelor's degree that put him $80,000 into debt and is one of the reasons he won't take a job that doesn't pay at least $15 an hour. For money and out of respect for himself.
He said I was the first nun he has ever spoken with and he began to talk about his beliefs. He grew up Jewish but got disillusioned with it and began studying Buddhism. He likes the emphasis on peace and nonviolence and even considered being a monk. He was quick to add that Sinhala extremists need to stop the killing. (This nationalistic movement believes that Sri Lanka is a Buddhist nation that must be protected from outsiders — especially Muslims — using violence if necessary.)
He likes Jesus and began to talk about how Jesus was influenced by the Near East and that his preaching and teaching were quite fine, embracing everyone and teaching peace. He used to like to debate religion in college, especially with the fundamentalists. He liked pointing out to them various discrepancies between what they said the Bible taught and what history or science taught.
He also rediscovered Judaism. My driver said he liked to ask questions and felt he couldn't within his tradition, which was one of the reasons he rejected formal religion. However, a rabbi friend recently told him that Judaism urges you to ask questions. That the Jewish faith is alive and needs to be reinterpreted through the ages.
We talked a bit more about those teachings and how important it is that businesses and individuals be more about the common good than personal greed and the accumulation of money.
My 25-minute ride came to an end too quickly. I awoke that morning a bit out of sorts, since it was so early, and there was no time to do my regular routines of yoga and contemplative sitting. However, I didn't realize the gift that awaited me.
This young man is living in a very different time than when I was his age. His jobs will probably be many over his lifetime. He won't have the security of company loyalty with benefits and pensions. He will have his nonnegotiables and the willingness to do what he must to honor the values he holds.
His sense of justice in the workplace is as strong as is his desire for peace and the need to address the common good rather than to do things for profit or personal gain alone.
His curiosity and interest in religion was impressive. Not too many Christians are as aware of the Near East influence on Jesus and his teachings and how Jesus lived at a crossroads of trade and various cultures. Nor would many of us be able to address the reasons for the Buddhist violence in Sri Lanka.
He was not what I expected from an Uber driver — nor from any conversation that occurs that early in the morning. It was a contemplative sitting as I opened myself to listen to this young man. To hear the voice and experience of the future: a searcher, a believer, a laborer, a justice-seeker and a peacemaker packaged in a very different way than we might have expected in the past.
It gave me hope. It fed my imagination. The future can be filled with people like him and others who reject the extreme consumerism of our culture; who are willing to work for a living wage and the respect one deserves; who have faith and search for the way to express it; who believe in the common good and the healthy future of our planet.
This was an encounter and a gift. It felt so right after participating in the assembly of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, where we talked about the role of religious women. In her keynote address, Patricia Murray, a member of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary and executive director of the International Union of Superiors General, reminded us that Pope Francis invited women religious to be "part of a true communion which is constantly open to encounter, dialogue, attentive listening and mutual assistance," reaching out globally to people of other faiths and of no faith.
One never knows when this encounter can happen. How early in the morning or in what place. Keith touched my life and my imagination. I hope that as the first nun he ever talked with, I touched his as well.
[Nancy Sylvester is founder and director of the Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue. She served in leadership of her own religious community, the Sister Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Monroe, Michigan, as well as in the presidency of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Prior to that, she was national coordinator of Network, the national Catholic social justice lobby. You may be interested in the current ICCD program, "Enter the Chaos: Engage the Differences to Make a Difference." For information go to iccdinstitute.org.]
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