A couple years ago I drew the lucky boarding pass. I found my seat in the last row in one of those tiny three-across planes that shuttle weary corporate types from Bentonville to Dallas where we scatter to terminals A through D and larger planes that take us to conference rooms across the country. I looked forward to an hour with my seatback in the upright position, trying to avoid awkward eye contact with people who forgot to forego the early morning coffee.
At least I got the aisle seat.
I couldn’t help but notice the man in the window seat looked a little Middle Eastern. So, as a good person, I quickly dismissed the whisper of a thought that hinted at my latent fear of the Other, the fear that had been fostered by Code Yellow threat advisories and scary soundtracks in too many action films.
My children were babies on 9/11. I knew that day, while I watched the second tower fall, that the world would never be the same. That sounds cliche now, and it felt melodramatic then. Sixteen years ago I didn’t know a soul in New York City, had never even been there. The attacks didn’t affect me personally that day, except as an affront to the naive patriotism I learned by watching School House Rock and completing my 8th grade Constitution project.
Just before we pulled away from the gate, my seat mate motioned to me that he needed to get up, and then he ducked into the little airplane bathroom leaving me alone with my best efforts not to imagine him in there making a bomb out of the liquid he managed to sneak onto the plane while TSA was distracted by the plumping lipgloss I forgot to sequester in a sandwich bag.
Calm down, right? The guy had to pee. It happens.
When he came back, last-minute-potty-guy looked flustered and a little sweaty. One could attribute this to a lot of things, but on that day, in the last seat on the plane, under the influence of diesel fumes, I was pretty sure I was seeing something that I now needed to say something about. But then again, what if I were wrong? What if this guy just had diarreah? Should I not be grateful that he made the 11th hour trip to the toilet? What if I held up the entire plane for nothing, and then had to sit next to this guy who now knows I’m a racist paranoid Middle American who thinks he’s a terrorist?
But what if he was a terrorist? That’s how we’ve all been programmed to think since 9/11.
What happened next should never be considered scary, or offensive, or life-threatening. However, in our world, it is. What happened next was that my seat buddy settled in, fastened his seat belt, and started to pray.
In a foreign language.
Now I really had to do something. Clearly lives were at stake–mine, every soul on that airplane, and whomever we hit in the fiery crash to come after the results of his diabolical bathroom trip came to pass.
I started to mentally craft my report to the flight attendant, who was busy checking the overhead compartments.
So, yeah, um, this guy next to me just went to the bathroom and now he’s praying. AND NOT IN ENGLISH.
The Terrorist gripped the armrest. Obvious jihad behavior.
Come on, Lela. You see something. SAY something.
As my mind spiraled around the scenario, and my gut turned in anxiety, from somewhere deep in the smart recesses of my monkey mind, a thought surfaced. Not even a thought really, but at least a couple of synapses fired that compelled me to take a breath and acknowledge the human being sitting next to me. If I was going to see something and say something to the woman in the red, white, and blue scarf who was in charge, the least I could do was say something to the subject of my panic.
Gathering all my courage I confronted the frantically praying Terrorist.
“Are you okay?”
And just like that, this guy transformed in my eyes from scary foreigner to terrified traveller. He immediately sat up straighter and overcompensated for his fearful behavior with a forced nonchalance.
“Me? No, I’m fine. Me? No, no, really. It’s nothing. I’m fine.”
Then he traded his previous coping behaviors of prayer and clutching the seat for a nervous chattiness that continued for the full hour we shared in the back of that plane. It was the kind of annoying get-to-know-you-and-your-life that I typically shun on early morning flights.
My new buddy worked in information systems at one of the Fortune 500 companies in the area. His daughter was headed home for the summer. She was picking him up at LAX and together they would drive her car back to Arkansas together. My new friend missed his daughter, terribly, and couldn’t wait to see her. He didn’t say that, just like he never admitted his fear of flying. He continued to focus all his outward anxiety on the weather that might delay his arrival in LAX. His daughter would be waiting.
When I was a kid my mother always said, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”
I have always found this to be terrible advice on many levels. However, in certain situations, it works.
I’m grateful I said something that day. I’m grateful I was nice.
Image Source: Pixabay