Anger, Stress and Compassion Aboard the Friendly Skies Easter Morning

Easter morning, traveling from Florida to New York with my husband and son, I was struck by the ease of a process that is often so taxing. With few travelers about, flights on time and virtually no lines, we sped through security exceptionally fast.
The apprehension I felt when the loudspeaker announcement came that our flight was overbooked (this was United after all) was quelled when the employee who needed a seat (a pilot) rode in the cockpit rather than uprooting a passenger.
Upon boarding, I noticed a boy, actually a young man – he looked to be about eighteen or nineteen, seated in my son’s assigned seat, 29A. It was a window in a row of three seats.
Unable to get three seats together, my seventeen year old son requested the solitary window seat immediately behind husband and me.
Thinking the airline may have double booked the seat, I asked the teenager if he had 29A.
He replied no, that his seat was in fact 29B. He then shrugged and offhandedly remarked, “But, it doesn’t matter.”
He stayed put.
Stuffing my bag in the overhead, I calmly replied that actually it does matter and that my son was holding a ticket with seat 29A.
Again he curtly retorted that “it doesn’t matter” and again I reiterated, this time more firmly, that yes, it does matter.
I’m not a good flyer. I’ve been known to become uncharacteristically anxious, anal and mercurial.
A courteous request on his part to switch seats would have diffused the situation. Given this cocky aloofness however, I concluded that here in row 29 was an obstinate jerk.
After reluctantly rising, he turned to my son who was now settling into his window seat, and coldly stated,
I hope you don’t to need to leave your seat because I’m not going to get up.”
Did this snarky entitled brat just tell my kid he wouldn’t get up even if he needed to use the bathroom?!
The outraged mother bear, when awakened, can render years of practiced yoga breathing and mindfulness virtually obsolete.
Nonetheless, I stifled the impulse to go on the attack. After all, at almost eighteen, my son needs to learn how to handle himself in difficult situations.
Also, wanting to avoid a scene, especially since my son was unfazed, I channeled my mature, even keeled passenger self, and responded, “This is air travel, let’s try to be kind.”
Before taking our seats, however, I turned to my husband and reactively exclaimed to him as well as to anyone within earshot,
“If he keeps up, I’ll have that freakin flight attendant here faster than you can say ‘Fly the Friendly Skies!!!”
My son’s red face coupled with his discreet, “Mom, stop” was all I needed to sit down and start a few rounds of mindful breathing.
When a dad with a squirmy toddler took the empty aisle seat next to this insolent young man, completing the row’s sandwich, I admittedly felt a tad of smug gratification.
I texted my son and offered to switch seats; surreptitiously savoring the opportunity to have a few words with 29B.
I’m fine, mom. I like him. I think we’ll be good friends,” he wittily replied.
I wish I could say my offering the young man the granola bar my son declined was a gesture of compassion but truth be told it felt less like genuine thoughtfulness than a callous attempt to use kindness as a weapon.
He refused it.
Settling in, I remained hyper attuned, eyes and ears open, ready to pounce should there be just cause.
That’s when I noticed 29B’s behavior during the safety instructions.
If I was hyper attuned to him, he was even more hyper attuned to the flight attendant; following each set of directions with an acute attentiveness one rarely sees among passengers. He examined the instructions on the safety card word for word and he was wide eyed noting as directed, the location of his seat cushion, oxygen mask and nearest exit.
The perspective shift, the “ding ding” moment, was swift.
Could it be that this kid was scared?
“Of course, that makes sense,” my husband, (the one who frequently sees what I can’t when I’m angry) remarked when I shared the observation.
Suddenly, I wasn’t sure if this was an obnoxious brat or a kid full of anxiety and dread.
Having parented and worked with children who have suffered trauma and stressful life experiences, I know all too well the nuanced ways stress can manifest itself.
Outrage, however, even among those of us who should know better, can be intoxicating.
Still, I was cautious. Seeing him lean over my nodding-off son to peer out the window during takeoff I wondered if this was nervousness or payback for losing the coveted window.
Mid flight my husband again offered my son and 29B a granola bar. This time they each accepted.
I turned around to let the young man know the bar contained peanuts in case he had allergies.
He asked me if I knew when we were landing. He appeared nervous.
When I told him around 2:00, he seemed bothered asking me if I was sure as he thought it was 1:30. I confirmed it was closer to two. He took a deep breath and sat back.
The final approach was awful. While the skies were clear, the winds were high and despite the pilot’s forewarning that it would be bumpy, the jolts and bounces were above and beyond what I’ve encountered on prior flights.
My usual flying anxiety though, took a backseat to my interest in how 29B was faring.
I noted he had his forehead pressed against the seat in front of him.
“Is it always this bumpy?” I heard him timidly ask my son.
I recalled asking the same of a flight attendant back in the 80’s when I was scared and traveling alone.
Are you okay?” I heard my son ask a minute or so later as the turbulent descent continued.
Is this your first flight?” my son inquired.
Though fully immersed in my own stomach churning hell and frankly frozen in my seat, I did hear the young man say,
“It’s one of my first.”
“It’ll be okay,” I heard my son remark shortly thereafter.
They continued chatting and as we approached the runway I heard 29B fretfully ask, “Where’s the runway? I can’t see it.”
It was at this point I wished I could have sat next to this kid for a few minutes.
Though my son’s remark that he too couldn’t see the runway, but that it “must be there somewhere,” was truthful and innocuous, I wanted 29B at that moment to feel comforted; to know how normal it is to be unable to see the runway until seconds before landing.
No matter how much we know or think we know, life’s journey will continue to test, to trigger and to awaken us to the fact that we know less than we think we do.
Who would have thought, “I’m not going to get up” was in actuality, “I’m not going to be able to get up.”
“The gulf that exists between us as people is that when we look at each other we might see faces, skin color, gender, race, or attitudes, but we don’t see, we can’t see, the stories. And once we hear each other’s stories we realize that the things we see as dividing us are, all too often, illusions, falsehoods: that the walls between us are in truth no thicker than scenery.”
29 B helped my husband get his bag down and departed. My husband and son exited shortly after and I trailed behind a few minutes later.
My son later informed me that when he deplaned 29B was waiting at the gate for him.
“Why?” I asked
“He wanted to say goodbye.”
Apparently 29B waited to shake my son’s hand and to tell him it was nice to meet him.
“What did you say?” I asked my son.
“Have a beautiful day, man.”