It is my birthday this week, so with lockdown easing, our family all got in the car to visit my parents yesterday.
It was our first trip together for months. My three children were especially looking forward to a slap-up (if socially-distanced) Sunday lunch cooked by their Granny. As a bonus, we were also going onto my best mate’s house to see him and his family afterwards.
After months of being at home, it was a day I was really looking forward to.
But after about an hour of the journey our car’s ‘Engine Malfunction’ light came on. We have had a lot of problems with the car recently so we stopped at a petrol station and I checked the engine’s oil and coolant.
This all went OK but as I went to screw the cap back on the oil tank, I clumsily dropped it into the engine. The cap clunked, rattled and disappeared into the warm darkness of the engine.
At first I thought it would be easy to retrieve. But however much I tried to squeeze my arm down I could not reach it. I became increasingly frantic as I tried everything I could to find the cap. I knew I could not drive anywhere without it.
All the time, I was getting more and more stressed. It was dawning on me about how much hassle this will cause. We were going to be late for our lunch and the whole day would be messed up.
In my mind was a similar mistake I had made last summer which also created a load of hassles. As our children started asking what was going on, I felt more and more stupid and angry with myself.
I was grateful that my wife stayed calm. She talked about getting a taxi to the nearest car suppliers and whether we should call the emergency break-down cover. Unbeknown to me, she also said a quiet prayer.
As I carried on my frantic search, a young man pulled up in a white van next to us and filled up with petrol. He came over and said ‘What’s the problem mate, what you looking for?’
Rather abjectly, I explained what had happened. He said ‘I used to have the same motor, lets see what I can do’. He banged on the plate underneath the engine ‘that’s where it is, I can hear it’. He also tried squeezing his arm down but also could not reach it.
He then disappeared. I carried on with my search and I thought he had gone, but actually he had slid underneath the car. A minute later he appeared, smiling, holding the lost cap. ‘There you go mate, got it!’
I was almost pathetically grateful. He put his hands together in a prayer pose in front of his face and simply said ‘Namaste…no worries mate’. And he walked back to his van.
I walked over to his van and said ‘You have saved our day, you’re a proper Good Samaritan’ and he just said ‘No problem, just do something for someone else. Namaste.’ And then he drove off.
This incident may seem relatively trivial. But this encounter really struck me and I cannot stop thinking about it. I think it is for two reasons:
Firstly, what he did. He did not have to get involved. Plenty of other people were milling around at a busy petrol station. It had nothing to do with him. But he noticed me, stepped out of his world and into my stress and frustration. He got involved.
Secondly, what he said. ‘Namaste’ is an important Eastern greeting with a complex history, made familiar in the West mainly through its use in yoga classes. I have no clue as to whether he is a committed Buddhist, but what struck me was the joy, humility and a lack of pretence with which he said it with. It was like he was expressing gratitude for being able to help me. In the grime, smell and relief of the moment, it was beautiful.
Some people reading this may be disappointed that the man was not a Christian. After all, I am. But this made it all the more powerful to me. Just imagine how Jesus’ compatriots felt when they heard his story about the foreigner who helped a beaten-up stranger on the Jericho Road?
We ended up having the most lovely of days with my parents and my best friend. But it would not have happened without Namaste-Man. I have no idea of whether my wife’s prayer directly led to what happened. But one thing I do know, there is no way her prayer went unanswered.
The encounter challenges me. I want to be more spontaneously helpful, more open to the needs of others around me and less caught up with myself. And, most of all, I want to be more grateful for a world where we can encounter such beautiful moments.