Building my Faith by Changing a Tire

Shawn Mitchell
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Posted: Dec 29, 2014 12:01 AM

Just in time for the New Year, David Brooks inspired me. Don’t get me wrong. I hold Brooks’s political views in low esteem; it infuriates me the PBS News Hour elevates him as a conservative spokesman. But this inspiration wasn’t political. It was, well, inspirational.

Brooks penned an NYT column, “The Subtle Sensations of Faith,” exploring how people experience faith in God and how it affects their behavior. One thought Brooks expressed is that seeds of faith often sprout as sudden transcendent glimpses:

“These moments provide an intimation of ethical perfection and merciful love. They arouse a longing within many people to integrate that glimpsed eternal goodness into their practical lives. This longing is faith. It’s not one emotion because it encompasses so many emotions. It’s not one idea because it contains contradictory ideas. It’s a state of motivation, a desire to reunite with that glimpsed moral beauty and incorporate it into everyday living.”

It was a useful reminder faith can spring from not just from religious pursuit but also from little epiphanies that open our souls’ eyes and make us yearn for our better selves. Brooks’s description reminded me of a time that lesson hit with overwhelming force as I helped a stranded father and daughter in the middle of a desolate desert. I’ve shared this story here before, but find it a better kick off for 2015 than another political salvo. There will be time for that.

In late summer of 1988, I was driving from Salt Lake City to Berkeley, California. Interstate 80 was mostly empty that evening. It leaves Salt Lake and traverses the Bonneville Salt Flats, a bleak scape of smooth salty plains sprawling for many miles. Eying the vastness, I was startled by an old motor home on the shoulder, and a weathered, bearded, long-haired man shaking a crow bar at me. He seemed a combination of street preacher and angry property owner yelling “Get off my freeway!”

Without thinking it through, I braked hard, nearly skidding to a stop a little beyond his camper.

He loped towards me in a stooped, uneven gait. One arm--not the one still brandishing the tire iron--was withered, with the hand pulled up against his chest. The crowbar shook in the dusk, coming closer. Is this about to get ugly? How will I fare against a disabled man with a weapon? Is he on drugs?

“Thanks for stopping!” he blurted. “I’ve been trying three hours. No one would stop!”

“You might reconsider your public marketing strategy,” I thought to myself. “What’s wrong, sir?”

“I have a flat tire and my crowbar is the wrong size; it won’t fit the lug nuts on my tire,” he explained.

A small girl of 5 or 6 emerged from the other side of the vehicle. Skinny, ragged, and seeming vulnerable even for a child, she stepped behind the man and peered at me.

“This is my daughter. Her mom’s gone. We’re traveling to be with family.”He kept explaining: “I’m a Vietnam vet. That’s where I got hurt,” nodding at his arm and leg. “We got a flat and my crowbar doesn’t fit,” he repeated.

I retrieved my own tire iron. Kneeling at the flat tire, I tried to place the cup over the nuts but it was too small. Mine didn’t fit either. Well, let’s have another look at his. He handed me the iron, I slipped it up to a lug nut, pressed, and it bit firmly. It was the right size.

As I started to contract and pull up on the iron, the painful reality flooded my mind: He wasn’t strong enough to turn the bolts, not with one good arm anyway. He was ashamed to tell his daughter the truth about why they were helpless.

She looked to him for protection. Her mom’s gone. What did that mean? Had she died? Left them?

He was all this girl had. He couldn’t bear to tell her he couldn’t do the simple thing they needed. They’d been stuck in one of our land’s most desolate stretches for three hours while he waved for help as motorists passed by.

I relaxed the tension on the iron and pulled it off. “It fits kind of awkward. Let me try again. I think it will work.” I wiggled it a few seconds before resetting it with perfect bite.

“I think that will hold…” I “struggled” to make the iron fit each successive nut as my eyes started to mist. I’ve never changed a tire with moist blurry eyes before or since.

Driving on my way, I felt gloriously warmed but also strangely incomplete and maybe a little condemned. Thank heavens I stopped. But how many people who need a little help have I missed? How often have I passed by unnoticing?

I thought of the man and girl again. How would the rest of their trip would go? How will their life go? Will others be there if they’re needed?

Will I notice the next person who needs a hand or a friendly word?

This January, the political world will gear up and resume grinding in Washington and in states and cities. What happens there is important and the battles matter. But we all mix every day with people fighting other battles. We can make our world, the world, better by noticing, sharing helping. I know if I do, I’ll feel closer to God and strengthen my faith.