Flying is an unusual experience. We sit in seats, only inches from other human beings, and we pretend like they aren’t there. Or, if we find them interesting, attractive, or friendly enough to meet our standards, we might choose to engage with them. But if they don’t meet our standards, we pour into our ourselves, we block out the noise, and we disappear into our worlds while hurling through the air in metal tubes. I am not saying that there is anything wrong with wanting to be left alone to relax in your uncomfortable and smelly airplane chair, I’m just saying it’s much harder to sit next to someone, pause your judgments, and chose to engage with them.
Last week I flew to Georgia to be with family for the holidays. Before taking off, the stewardess told the lady next to me to please put her phone in airplane mode. The passenger responded, “ok, yeah, thank you,” and she continued to talk on her phone. “This lady is pretty rude,” I thought. Then I proceeded to congratulate myself for being a polite and respectful passenger. Look how much better I am for not using my cellphone before takeoff. Look how courteous I am for respecting the stewardess by giving her my attention. I would never behave in such a disrespectful way like the lady sitting next to me would. After satiating my ego by proving how great I was, I put on my headphones and fell asleep.
As the pilot landed the plane and started to taxi, I woke up to find the lady next to me crying. I removed my headphones and asked if she was okay. She shook her phone in front of me saying that her best friend had just died. The stranger who sat next to me had just flown across the country so that she could say goodbye to a person she loved. Before we took off, she was making arrangements for someone to pick her up from the airport to drive her to the local hospital.
I put a hand on her back and rubbed her gently as she sobbed into her hands and cursed God for not giving her more time. I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing. We exited the plane, and I asked if she needed anything. She said no, thanked me, and walked in the opposite direction from me. The point of this story is not to illustrate how kind I am and stroke my ego. On the contrary, the point is to warn you how I, like all of us, allow my ego to dictate how I perceive the world around me and how I should engage with it. Instead of asking the lady why she chose to stay on her phone even after the stewardess asked her to turn it off, I allowed myself to judge her, and I assumed that she was rude and entitled.
Had I chosen to speak with her, I could have offered her more than a hand on her shoulder. I could have empathized with her rather than just being able to offer her sympathy.
It’s much easier to be critical rather than curious. It’s much easier to settle comfortably in our assumptions. It’s much easier to buy wholesale into our feelings without skepticism. Why? Because doing so feels good. It feels good being certain. It feels good knowing that you are right. It’s much harder to apologize. It’s much harder to ask for help. It’s much harder to admit that you have flaws that need improvement.
I’m not sharing this because I’ve cracked the code and figured “it” out. I’m sharing this because I am flawed. I am sharing this because there are people who are smarter, kinder, braver, and more vulnerable than me, and my ego knows this and comforts me by reminding me of all the good I’ve done. At this point, your ego might be telling yourself, “Jeez, lighten up. This is just one tiny moment in series of millions of moments that will make up your life. Go easy on yourself.” But these tiny moments are your life. And if you’re not careful, you will constantly congratulate yourself for a handful of accomplishments without actually achieving anything.
I think Cheryl Strayed said it best in a letter to a young reader of her advice column: “You are becoming who you are going to be, so you might as well not be an asshole.” So, check your ego, constantly question what you think reality is, ask why five times, and strive to be kind rather than correct. After all, you’re probably wrong.