RECENTLY, I was on a flight from my hometown of Detroit to Boston. When we reached cruising altitude, the pilot announced, “We are going to have a smooth flight”. His calm confidence had the guise of safety.
But I do not have the genetic inscription to sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight. And in our post 9-11 world with ongoing media streams bearing witness to tragedy, I know many share my sentiment. There is a collective narrative of vulnerability we embark on after buying tickets. At the airport, in front of strangers, we are exposed; we take off sweaters and belts, walk barefoot through scanners. We sit squished for hours, vying for exit rows, listening to neighbors snoring and their babies crying. Those we sit next to are not usually people we would have met in our everyday lives. Yet I have witnessed remarkable interactions amongst strangers, and from our shared vulnerability, surprising moments unfold.
The man sitting next to me on this flight was no exception to my “we would never have met” rule. I am ashamed to say I judged him before he sat down. He was a burly, overweight man in his 50s with bloodshot eyes. He wore an old grey cutoff T-shirt that barely covered his belly, his jeans were unwashed, and he reeked of cigarette smoke. In our post-Trump world, I found myself dividing us into parties, and thought: We did not vote for the same candidate.
As I attempted to recline, the plane took an unexpected dip, and the fasten seatbelt sign dinged on. It is a habit I have developed to strike up conversation with my neighbor during rough air, a helpful distraction at 37,000 feet.
This practice has led me to hear amazing stories, and each time I am awestruck by the lives we all live. I have sat next to a man traveling to see his wife who was just diagnosed with cancer weeks after their wedding, and a physicist remaking Alexander Grand Bell’s electricity grid across the country. I have sat next to two Priests and a Nun, and on a separate flight a Rabbi too.
As our plane bounded through a turbulent sky I asked my neighbor a benign question: What was his reason for travel? It turned out that he was a mechanic, but not just any mechanic. He was one of only a handful of mechanics that fix nuclear submarine propellers for the Navy, and so he is flown to ports across the country. He was also the father of a little girl and was looking forward to finally getting home to see her. How amazing, I thought, embarrassed by how easily I judged him without knowledge of his life.
Despite the interesting conversation, the turbulence increased and I became distressed. “Not as smooth as they said”, he laughed.
Despite growing up overseas and flying during monsoon season to get home, I have minimal resilience to cope with turbulence. Our plane bounded ferociously and I just could not handle it. I looked over at my neighbor with unabashed fear.
In that instant, this man twenty years my senior and from a different world met my gaze without judgment.
He extended his callused hand, “Would this help?”
I placed my anxious hand in his and for the next few minutes we were no longer strangers but passengers linked, both hoping for a safe journey home. If not for this trip our lives would have never crossed. But in that moment this stranger offered me his hand and it saved me, and all I could say was thank you.