18 Apr The wisdom of a young taxi driver

I was at a tradeshow this week in Washington D.C. with a whole horde of very smart people so, it was a bit of a surprise the most interesting person I met was a taxi driver. I got in a cab after a day of meetings, and unlike most drivers, he greeted me warmly and seemed quite sincere when he asked how I was doing. I was coming from a business dinner and I was tired. With a sigh, I told him I was fine, and asked out of courtesy how he was doing. He said, “I am doing great! Thank you for asking. Where are you from?”

That’s usually what I ask cab drivers, because I like to guess based on different accents. I told him I was from Colorado and asked where he was from. It was the start of a captivating conversation.

The driver was from Eritrea (East Africa). He came to the U.S. in 2002. I asked him what prompted him to move here knowing a little of the history of civil war with Ethiopia. He told me his parents were killed when he was fifteen, so he lied about his age and joined the fight with his brothers. He spent six months training to become a soldier in the army. He then spent four years fighting, and his brothers were all killed during the conflict. Ultimately, he was badly burned and shot. He spent two and half years recovering in a hospital. He described an apparatus that hoisted him above the bed to keep his wounds off the sheets. He said the contraption was more like a torture device that kept his arms and legs bound. At a traffic light, he showed me the burn scars on his lower legs.

He then said in a matter of fact response, “It was bad, but it showed me my purpose.” I asked him what that purpose is, and he laughed and said, “To be positive.”

I tried to empathize with what he had been through and asked him his age. He said he was thirty years old, but looked much older. His younger sister is his only surviving family member, and he is working to put her through school at George Mason University. When she completes her studies, he wants to go back to school full-time and finish his studies to become a radiology technician. I asked if his purpose was to take care of his sister. He said, “Of course – but I have to be positive to do that!”

Lastly, I asked him if he thought the war should have been avoided. To my surprise, he said, “They will never attack us again – they have enough problems with Somalia.” And he fell silent. That was not the response I expected. I thought he would say that his suffering was for naught, but there was no self-pity.

There were many well-spoken speakers at the tradeshow with impressive credentials. They were all well educated, affluent, and successful by all conventional measures – business leaders, policy wonks, celebrity activists… Nevertheless, I was most inspired by the thirty-year-old taxi driver from Eritrea who remains positively in control of his outlook despite a young life of utter anguish. There are those whose aim it is to inspire, but this man’s singular example of overcoming great suffering to make a difference was utterly refreshing. Life’s challenges are truly relative, but those trials can serve as a crucible where character is illuminated, tested and strengthened.

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