"Your paradigm is so intrinsic to your mental process that you are hardly aware of its existence, until you try to communicate with someone with a different paradigm."
— Donella Meadows
I had just settled into a cab for a short ride to a meeting in Boston, when the driver initiated a conversation: “So, it doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor; we all can die from AIDS,” he began, in a distinctly Haitian dialect. Uncertain of his intentions, I supportively nodded in agreement, as he looked at me in his rearview mirror.
He continued, “I see all kinds of people in a day: some dying, some going to see family who are dying. Dying is part of life. Do you think they really understand that?”
Unsure of where he was going, I wondered, Why the comments on death—or was it life? Did he have AIDS? Was he ill? Perceiving my attentiveness, he continued, “It makes no sense to worry about death since we will all die. But while we’re alive, the question is, do you know how to live? Many say nasty things and put others down; others worry about dying.” He laughed, and asked me, “Why do they do that?”
Thinking that his comments veiled some deeper pain, I encouraged him to explain what he was thinking, responding: “Maybe they don’t know better.”
“You are very kind.” “They’re actually making a choice! They’re not choosing to be really alive. They could do this, but they don’t.”
It was now clear that we were no longer sharing a casual conversation but entered the depths of his inner world. The driver was raising a litany of questions: “Why do people spend their day being angry? Why are they prejudiced? Is my black skin so offensive?”
He continued: “One woman came into my cab and asked me to wash the cab before she sat down. She said that she was afraid of germs. I wondered, ‘What is the germ really about? Is this a physical germ? Does she believe that I’m the germ? Is the germ in her head? Is the germ in her heart?’ I told her that I did not have the tools to remove the germ that was bothering her. But I assured her that it would not be this germ that killed her. She came in the cab and I brought her to her destination. I sensed that these questions sat with her as they should.
Another one of my riders had a severe heart problem. He said that he was dying. And he said that all through his life he had hated black people, but that he had just gotten a heart transplant from a black man. He wanted to confess to me, because I am a black man. He said that he would give all of his money for this black heart. He felt that he was being humbled, but I’m not so sure. Do you know what I said to him? ‘We all will die. So what? But we all have a choice of how we choose to live.’ Does his life with his black heart change his mind?”
With my ride nearing its end, I told him that I appreciated his insight, saying, “This ride was a living sermon.” To my surprise, he immediately replied, “We each have a pulpit; mine is here, in this cab. Yours is in your classroom, with your patients, at the meeting where you’re now going. We have the power to say what is Good and True; what brings us together--and to share life.”
Just then we stopped at a four-corner red light. People were crossing in all directions. The driver moved his hand across the windshield, pointing at the people. “Who are they? Are they alive? I feel the presence of God, and I want to connect with their Good, but I can only do it if they let me. If they see only themselves or are afraid that they’ll die because they’re missing something--a house, money, even a heart; does it matter that they are alive? We all know what is Good, and what is bad. But you believe they don’t know. Go and tell them what you know. Maybe some will come alive.”
I felt the good in this man, preaching from his mobile pulpit. He had a powerful grasp of himself and of his journey. He had a paradigm.
We may not be aware of the models and maps that we permit to direct our lives--but they are present nonetheless. Each of us might ask: what is the living paradigm for my life? How do I walk in my journey? Have I established a paradigm that awakens my possibilities?
Our paradigm is our plan and living of our chosen direction. It has a determinative effect on our life. Some paradigms open a vast expanse for opportunities and exploration; others are utterly dry, and life is a desert.
Our paradigm establishes our purpose. It gives us identity. Our paradigm is our religion in the deepest sense of the term--the system and cause of our commitments, attitudes, beliefs, and practices. It is incumbent upon us to take ownership of our paradigm:
Many are indoctrinated into a paradigm, not feeling vitality in their course nor recognizing the existence of meaningful options. Like this cabbie, however, our paradigm can lead us to confront ourselves and determine if we are fully alive.
John T. Chirban, Ph.D., Th.D. is a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of True Coming of Age: A Dynamic Process That Leads to Emotional Stability, Spiritual Growth, and Meaningful Relationships. For more information please visit www.drchirban.com.