I was flying from Minneapolis to Atlanta yesterday on a bargain flight which my husband found on short notice. It involved commuter jets and layovers, but it was cheap and I was happy to oblige. The airplanes were small. You know the kind. Two seats smushed together on each side of a teeny tiny aisle in which no two humans could possibly pass. Only seventeen rows from front to back. These planes aren't bad on puddle jumping flights, but the leg of Chicago to Atlanta was pushing two hours.
I boarded the plane and noticed a very large woman sitting in my row, across the aisle. And by large, I mean that I wasn't sure if she was actually able to put the arm rest down between the seats. Her grayish blonde hair was swept back into a ponytail. Even though it was the middle of summer, she wore a gray hooded sweatshirt, white T-shirt and jeans. It was obvious from her dress that she just wanted to blend in. Her face was pleasant looking and a pair of wire-rimmed glasses rested on her nose as she quietly read her book.
A few minutes later, a uniformed pilot, riding standby to his final destination, stopped in the aisle and looked at his boarding pass. Realizing he was going to have to squeeze into the very small space next to the very large lady, he responded that he thought that there was an empty row in the back he would try.
The lady laughed nervously and said, "I promise I took a shower this morning!..... but I understand." The look on her face showed that she'd had years of practice smiling on the outside while holding back the hurt and pain and embarrassment on the inside.
The flight, as it turned out, was not full. And as each additional passenger boarded, my heart leapt for joy at the possibility of keeping the empty seat by my side. As the flight attendant announced that boarding was complete, the uniformed pilot came back. "Just my luck," he said with a smile. "I have a whole row to myself and a family of four gets on."
The large woman struggled out of her seat and the pilot took his diminutive place by the window. A moment later, the flight attendant appeared. An obvious attempt to rescue her superior from his fate, she said, "Captain, there is a vacant seat next to Pilot Johnson. I noticed you were talking earlier and thought you might want to finish your conversation."
I could feel the repressed pain and humiliation behind the large woman's pasted on smile. She would always be alone. She would always be that person sitting in a chair in the corner of a gathering. No one would ever get close enough to know the person that lived beneath her outer layers.
The pilot paused for a moment as he pondered his more comfortable offer. Then he did the unthinkable. He said, "No." "I'm good right here," he replied to the flight attendant. "Really, I'm fine."
The woman beamed as she set her book on her lap. From that moment forward, the uniformed pilot and the lady in the gray sweatshirt conversed the entire flight. I thought about how his one act of selflessness may have changed her life that day. He took the time to listen to her thoughts and words. Suddenly, she had worth. He looked beyond her appearance and looked into her heart. When I examined myself, I wasn't sure if I would have made that same choice. I wanted to tell him that I had observed the kindness he demonstrated, but I never saw him get off the plane. As it turned out, that pilot touched not just the life of the lady in gray, he touched mine as well.
I guess King Solomon got it right when he wrote, "Your own soul is nurtured when you are kind." (Proverbs 11:17) I think I'm going to vinyl that on our wall. These are quenching words for a thirsty world.