As I’ve been traveling a bit more frequently in the last couple of years, I’ve set an intention to engage any taxicab driver I ride with in a conversation of meaning.  As many of the taxi drivers I meet are originally from another country, it’s a perfect opportunity for me to deepen my knowledge of another part of the world and, often, hear someone else’s story and passions – one of my favorite things to do.  Nine out of ten drivers I meet seem more than enthusiastic to have a conversation about their life with me, so I hold onto the hope that there is as much in it for them as there is for me.

Today, in the taxi on the way to O’Hare, I had the wonderful opportunity to chat with Lambert from Nigeria. Lambert has lived in Chicago for more than 20 years and travels back to his home country at least once or twice a year to visit. I asked him my tried-and-true meaningful conversation starter, “What’s the one thing you miss the most from Nigeria?”  Without hesitation, Lambert told me, quite emphatically, “Real love.” In awe that he could be referring to a topic I’m deeply passionate about, I asked him to share what he meant by that exactly.  He replied, “Love for your family, your friends, your village, and your whole town.”  Of course, I was so moved that I started to tear up right there in the cab, but, thankfully, I held it together and continued the conversation.

I asked, “You don’t think that kind of love exists here in the United States?”  He said he did not believe it was fully possible here because everything is so Westernized: many people are focused around trying to accomplish things, trying to get wealth, status, and power.  He said they aren’t genuinely concerned about other people, especially not the way people are in his village in Nigeria. Lambert agreed when I suggested that perhaps Americans may be more individualistic and self-centered. He said, “Love here isn’t genuine… it’s about what you can get in return from someone else.” I then asked him what he thought it would take for us to have that kind of love – real love – here in America.

Lambert lamented, sharing his disappointment with the United States for being an entity that tries to “inflict” its culture on other parts of the world, rather than valuing and being open to learning from other cultures.  He explained that even though people in his Nigerian village do not have much money or many material things – in fact, there is very little Western influence there at all – Americans could learn many things from the people there.  And most of all, we could learn about real love.

He shared an example.  Lambert told me he had never seen a handgun in his entire life until he came to the United States.  He asked me, “Why do people in this country own guns for self-defense? You know if you shoot someone, you are likely to kill them.  You save your life, but you end another person’s life?  Is that what you really want?”  He expressed amazement at the lack of value many people place on other human beings’ lives here.  He marveled at how people could feel their lives are more valuable than others’.  I mentioned that some people call that having “delusions of superiority.”  He explained that back in his village, his father owned a double barrel shotgun, but it was just used to hunt.  It was never meant to be used for self-defense from another human being. That’s not how they do things.  Again, he had my eyes swelling.

As we neared the airport, I asked Lambert how he felt our culture here in the United States needed to change.  He expressed strongly his feeling that Western culture has gone too far.  I asked him whether he felt his four children have been negatively affected by the American culture and influence.  I had expected him to say yes, but what I didn’t expect was his reason for it.  He told me his boys play the role of being similar to their friends at school to fit in, and then as soon as they’re not with their friends, they go back to being who they genuinely are.  He said when they go back to Nigeria to visit, you would never know they’re from the United States.  In other words, they are each living a life of duplicity because they feel they have to conform with American culture outwardly, when deep down they value Nigerian tradition… they value real love and connection.

Lambert stopped the cab and turned off the meter.  We had arrived but were nowhere close to finishing the conversation.  Lambert turned around to me and continued, “We need a blend of Western culture with more traditional cultures, ones that value a slower lifestyle, time for reflection, time to form deep connections… where people are really are concerned about how they relate to other people, instead of being so focused on accomplishing things and gaining status, wealth, and material items.”  He shared with me that he had read about small communities of people in the United States who seem to have adopted this blend effectively – like some groups of Native American Indians.  Lambert shook my hand and smiled warmly as I finally exited the cab.

Lambert might not have been familiar with the phrase “compassionate love,” but his description of “real love” was strikingly similar.  How would America be different if we valued every other human being’s life as much as we value our own?  If we were open and receptive to learning meaningful lessons from other cultures?  If we slowed down and stopped trying so hard to get the next promotion or the next raise – and instead made it our priority to connect deeply with others?  How would life be if we freely expressed love to everyone without expecting anything in return?  It sounds to me like we’d have a lot fewer kids – and adults – living lives of duplicity, and more people outwardly being who they truly are deep down.

Thank you for the very meaningful conversation, Lambert.