An unwanted connection with a taxi driver reminds Ade Adeniji of the human connection that happens when we allow ourselves to be seen.
Growing up in a household where I was often shamed for sharing my feelings or talking about the things that deeply mattered to me, I learned how to be vigilant when entering unpredictable situations. Echoes of that past still show up in my present day These range from casual encounters with people I might never see again, to more intimate moments with my partner and close friends.
Just the other day a stranger smiled at me and mouthed “Hello.” I was so caught up in “what does he want?” and “do I know him from somewhere?” that I never got round to responding. As I walked away feeling a warm wash of shame creep over me, I thought back to an encounter I had with a taxi driver in London a few years ago.
I had been on a workshop at the Old Vic Theatre, where myself and five other participants got to practice our elevator pitch for our social enterprise projects from the stage. I was beaming and feeling so elated about the whole experience, as I stepped into a taxi outside the Old Vic to take me to my next meeting.
As I settled into the back seat, lost in daydreaming about how the workshop had unfolded, I heard the taxi driver ask whether I was an actor. I briefly explained what had taken me to the Old Vic. And before I knew it, we were deep into talking about other things. The driver was clearly someone who loved to engage with his customers, and whilst I often love a good conversation too, I was not really feeling up to it on this particular afternoon; in between longing to continue daydreaming about the wonderful Old Vic session, I also wanted to read some of the papers for the meeting I was rushing to. In order to stop myself from talking too much, I decided to keep asking him open questions, so that all I did was listen, rather than engage. This continued for a while, until, out of nowhere he asked me what I did for a living.
I told him I worked in the field of personal development and helped people reconnect with their core self and live their best lives. He asked whether I worked for a company and I told him I worked for myself and was a partner in a company. I was conscious that my answers were short and to the point, but the driver did not seem bothered by that, he was just as engaging. He then asked what sort of people I worked with. As I heard him ask the question, I heard a voice in my head say, “Are you going to tell him you work with gay men or are you simply going to mention your corporate work?”
This was followed by many other voices; in fact I had a full internal conversation going on. The whole experience took seconds, but in real-time it felt like the moment was happening in slow motion. The dialogue in my head went something like this –
“So what if I tell him I work with gay men?”
“Well if you do, he might think you are gay and then he will not be so chatty any more.”
“Or he might tell you to get out of his cab. Or he might be homophobic, after all he looks like one of those alpha male guys.”
“But I thought you said you want to embrace vulnerability, be authentic and show up and be seen.”
“Yes I do, but I will never see this guy again, so it does not really matter and after all I do want him to stop talking.”
“So, you feel shame for letting him know you are gay?”
“No, of course not. As I said I’ll never see him again. I am simply afraid for my safety.”
I became conscious of the fact that I was afraid of breaking that connection that we had developed – even though it was not a connection I necessarily wanted. I heard myself say to him, “I work with gay men and I also work with people in organizations.”
There was a brief silence. I remember feeling vulnerable – exposed – in that moment. I had no idea what might happen and we were nowhere near my destination. He turned his head to look at me and said, “I think one of my sons is gay. He has not said anything, but I think he is. And if he is, it does not matter, I still love him. He is my son …”
He spoke about his family for a while, which was great as I had no words – all I kept hearing in my head was, “When I take off my vulnerability armor and allow myself to be seen, it gives others the permission to do the same.”
As I listened, I felt very privileged to hear this father talk about the love he had for his son. He turned his head to me again, smiled and said, “… I think my son will be okay …”
I spoke about the workshops I co-facilitate for Gay Men. And I talked about how society was changing and how great it was that parents like him were starting to emerge and love their kids exactly as they are. I talked about how it was important to not neglect the fact that homophobia is still evident in many pockets of society, like schools, media and workplaces and that this can sometimes make it challenging for gay men, even those from loving homes, to have a healthy sense of self. He said he’d never thought of that before. He went on to talk about other gay colleagues he’d worked with in previous jobs and then conversation moved onto other topics.
As we said goodbye, I thought of my own father whom I had never come out to by the time he passed away, and I imagined him having had a similar conversation with a friend, colleague or stranger. As I made my way into the meeting I felt grateful for the encounter, for it had been an ordinary conversation that had touched me much more than I could have imagined it doing when I stepped into the back seat of the taxi.
I often find myself thinking of that taxi driver in moments when I get caught up in old fears, and miss the opportunity to connect with strangers. I thought of him as I smiled and mouthed “Hello” to the woman who crossed my path as I left the gym this morning. And even though she did not respond, it felt OK, I have showed up and allowed myself to be seen.