Life is a combination of moments in time. How we react to these moments by our actions and words is what defines them. It’s when I act with intention and allow myself the mindfulness of the moment that I find the greatest rewards in the most unlikely places.
This story was no exception.
If I were to properly title this blog, I would have called it The F*ck Man. Apologies to anyone I am offending with the language, but I am quoting and want to keep the story real. And the man really did say f*ck a lot.
Instead I am going with an alternate title.
My story begins at the Boise airport. It was my second attempt to fly back to Omaha after weather-related changes in flights a few days previously. With another wave of storms hitting the Midwest and a connecting flight through San Francisco to still deal with, I was feeling a little on edge.
Arriving at my gate early, I made a quick call to my second son, Ben. We caught up with him giving me an update of his week. As we finished our conversation, I heard a man near me swearing loudly. Glancing over, I saw an older gentleman in a wheelchair. He had a flip phone strategically positioned in his lap placed in speaker mode, sharing his entire conversation with all around him.
The man appeared both sick and agitated. As his voice grew louder, f-bombs were flying left and right. Eyeballing the many kids surrounding us, they seemed oblivious to the ruckus. Instead they were preoccupied with their own devices. An unlikely benefit to electronics was the f-bombs literally flying over their heads.
I sent a text Ben, describing what was happening. With his response, I decided to put my phone away and let this man’s back story be his own.
Refocusing on my seat assignment of 24B, I realized that I was likely seated in back. The plane was small with each row having only two seats on either side. Making my way back, I locked eyes with the young male flight attendant who appeared to be waiting for me.
“Can I ask a favor? Would you switch seats with this lady, so she can sit by her friend?”
A knock-off of Neil Patrick Harris, the flight attendant was poised over my designated seat with a smile and awaiting an answer which I quickly gave him.
“Of course. No problem at all.”
Looking down at the woman who was now getting up to switch seats, she gave me a quiet thank-you. It was at that point that I noticed the man seated next to her.
It was the f*ck man.
He is looking down and not happy about having to get up to let her through.
Taking my seat next to him, I made sure to give him the adjoining arm rest and the extra space that he seemed to want. By the time the plane began taxiing, the man was asleep and I was relieved.
Feeling the need to again share with Ben on this strange turn of events, we had another text exchange.
I felt a tinge of guilt as I had been schooled by my college-age son on being open minded. There was no doubt that I had never walked a day in this man’s shoes and hadn’t a clue on the struggles he seemed to be having.
A Cheryl Strayed quote I had heard some time ago was swimming in my brain, but I struggled at remembering the exact words. It was about first accepting people free of opinion.
Remembering the podcast where I heard the desired quote, I quickly downloaded, so I could listen on the plane. The podcast was a favorite of mine with author Cheryl Strayed and actor Alan Alda discussing the human side of communication.
Cheryl shared a story from when she worked with troubled poor teenage girls. Her boss had given her great advice on not passing judgment and had a fancy term for it. As the man sitting next to me continued to sleep, I listened to my podcast while taking notes onto my little notepad.
Starting flight service, Neil Patrick Harris-flight attendant couldn’t get past the man’s protruding leg. After his three attempts to move the man, including a gentle nudging assist from me, my neighbor finally woke up and pulled his leg in.
Grumbling over the interruption of sleep, the man less gently nudged me back and took over our joint arm rest. Continuing to listen to my podcast, I took in a deep breath, repeating myself...Don’t be judgy. Don’t be judgy.
Finally finding the exact quote I was looking for in my podcast, I fervently wrote it down.
"Always treat people with unconditional positive regard."
It’s a fancy term for a beautiful thing you do for others that allows you to be open-minded and allows them to tell their own story rather than you scripting it for them. It’s about setting judgment aside when approaching others. It’s about allowing them to tell you their truth without you first having an opinion about it.
Unconditional positive regard.
It’s about having more compassion and less judgment.
Giving this some thought, I made up my mind on how I was going to handle my next interaction with the man sitting next to me. I didn’t choose to rant on Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram or Facebook. Instead I decided to buy him a drink.
Neil Patrick Harris-flight attendant was a little exasperated by the time he made it to us. We were the last two putting in our drink orders. I heard him say to the person ahead of us that he was out of sparkling water and almost out of ice. On my turn, I ordered a Bloody Mary. The man, seemingly following my lead, promptly ordered a white wine.
As Neil Patrick Harris-flight attendant prepared our drinks, he seemed visibly nervous as I was the only one with credit card ready for payment. The man next to me appeared to have fallen asleep again with no form of payment ready.
“Pay for both of us” I told him as I handed over my credit card.
In response, Neil Patrick-Harris flight attendant gave me a sigh-filled thanks with a raised eyebrow. Having no idea whether the man next to me knew his drink cost money or that I bought it for him, I reminded myself that it was irrelevant. Unconditional positive regard.
The man then turned and looked me in the eye for the first time.
“You bought the drink. Thanks!” he exclaimed in his broken dialect.
I picked up my glass with “No problem. Cheers”.
After he unscrewed his mini-bottle of wine, we officially exchanged a clink of our drinks. The man didn’t touch the glass provided to him and instead drank directly out of the little plastic bottle. He proceeded to tell me how he loved the wine bottle. I thought he is referring to the vineyard. Instead he explained how he liked the small container size because they were easy to hide in his coat.
As the man looked ahead, continuing to enjoy his wine out of the bottle, I continued to listen to my podcast. Taking notes on a pad of paper, pausing the podcast only to take down my favorite words.
I soon noticed the man was no longer looking ahead but watching me. And then he said something.
“What are you writing?”
I showed the man the picture of Alan Alda on my phone as the podcast background. I asked if he knew who he was or if he knew about podcasts. I got no answer.
I went on to tell him that I was taking notes, like transcribing. That I write down things I like, so I remember.
“Oh, I was just curious what you were writing.”
I never did get an answer on whether he knew Alan Alda, so I moved on to small talk. He wanted to chat, so I paused the podcast.
Now looking at each other, we engaged in conversation and I noted that his eyes seemed kind but weary. And maybe a hint of scared. He had a large fading yellow bruise on the right side of his head. His hands were full of various stages of cuts and scabs. A purple bruise on his wrist appeared more fresh than the yellow on his face.
Me: “Are you traveling to home or leaving home?”
Man next to me: “Going home.”
Me: “San Francisco?”
Man next to me: “South Africa.”
Me: “South Africa??”
I go on to blubber about how my passport is only marked for Canada and Mexico, contrary to all three of my kids. I am not a world traveler and need to get out of the US more. He laughs at my joke.
Me: “Are you going to stay long in South Africa?”
Man next to me: “I don’t know. Trump f*cked everything up. But I have a wife in Missouri.”
Caught somewhere between wanting to change the subject and intrigue in staying with the conversation, I decided to do a little of both.
Me: “How long have you been in the states? Why are you going back?”
Man next to me: “Drinking is my issue. I am going to clean up there. My family is there. But I don't know if I will get back in the United States.”
I momentarily rethink my decision to buy him a drink. But my inner voice keeps reminding me not to judge. If the guy wanted a drink, let him drink.
Me: “Family is everything. Isn’t it?”
He went on to tell me about having parents, children, and grandchildren who live in South Africa. Yes, it is very beautiful, he tells me. His eyes light up when describing South Africa and then mentioning again the wife who I now know lives in Missouri. I didn’t ask the connection to Boise.
He then opened his wallet, thinking is was very important to produce a copy of his marriage license and said again “Trump f*cked everything up.”
He went on to say that America was a wonderful place to live. He had lived here for 5 years under a visa and worked very hard. I could only make out that he did work for storage facilities. I then asked him how he liked Americans.
“Nice, but they complain a lot. Nothing is good. Everything is bad.”
He went on to point out that we Americans have such a wonderful life, full of so much opportunity, but most haven’t a clue on this blessing. Pointing to his white skin, he commented about how skin color matters both in our country and his country.
And then he said something that brought a little tear into the corner of his eye.
“Diversity is beautiful you know.”
Yes, I know. But perhaps I don’t know as much as I should. I silently nodded my head.
I showed him a picture of my dog. I don’t know why. It felt right and I was feeling like I owed something for my show-and-tell after his sharing of his marriage certificate. He smiled a big smile.
“Dogs are the best.”
We both agree that a dog’s conditional love and the fact that they don’t talk back, elevate them to this level.
I told him my hope that everything would work out for him. He smiled. And then we both sat in silence, enjoying the California views out the window. With the quiet of the plane descent and feel of floating in the clouds, it felt like time had stopped. Even the babies stopped crying.
Unconditional positive regard.
As the last ones left on the plane, we stood to depart. I extended my hand.
“So very nice to meet you. I really wish you the best of luck.”
His eyes were alive and his hand, although full of scabs, still remembered a firm hand shake. We never did exchange names. Neil Patrick Harris-flight attendant mouthed a "Thank-you" and we all went our separate ways.
For the record, Ben Lane, he really was a good guy once I got to know him. Thanks for the reminder on human decency (with that being directed to me, not to him).
I will close this blog post by quoting Cheryl Strayed. This was her opening comment in the podcast describing why she writes.
“I’m not telling a story because I think I’m so interesting and think people should know about what I think. I do it because I think it’s helpful to hear others, to understand other people’s experiences. And to know you’re not alone and I’m not going to judge you.” – Cheryl Strayed
Thanks, Cheryl. Always great advice. And it really is all about the tiny beautiful things in life, isn’t it?