It’s when you least expect it that you are vulnerable enough to be open to profound experiences. And for me, it seems to notoriously be on an airplane, crammed into a window, next to a stranger, attempting to quietly read a book.
“Lucky? Is that a book about lucky charms?” The strange man next to me asked as I pulled Alice Sebold’s memoir out of my carryon.
“Not exactly,” I offered.
The puzzled look on his face inquired.
“Have you heard of Alice Sebold? This is her memoir. It’s about how she gets through the darkest, most difficult stage of her life and considers herself lucky after it all,” I explained.
That wasn’t enough. I let him read the review on the front cover.
“Gruesome and strangely enchanting…A controlled and meticulous account…The quiet achievement of Sebold’s memoir of her rape as a college freshman is that she handles her subject with the integrity of a journalist and the care of a survivor.” – Newsday
“Powerful stuff,” he said, shaking his head. “So, is Denver home for you?”
It was at that moment I knew I wasn’t going to get any reading done on this flight.
“No,” I replied. “I live in San Francisco. Going to Colorado to visit my family and go fishing with my dad. Is Denver home for you?”
He informed me he and his family (sitting in other rows on the plane) had just spent some time in Hawaii. We exchanged the usual cordials – I work at a social media company downtown, love my job, explained what I do, what I love, how hard I work. He vaguely discussed his job as working in the religious world (later I found out he’s a Senior Pastor at a local Colorado church – but not until the business card exchange at the end of the flight).
He told me he’s trying to get religious leaders into social media. He wants to help create and build communities because kids and teenagers aren’t interested in a traditional religious community. They want something new. Something fresh.
“The challenge is that everyone in the religious world is so old-fashioned. They don’t understand the value of participating on these social networks. These networks can build those relationships and communities and further their entire reach. Social media is a powerful, yet untapped, tool for religious leadership,” he explained.
We talked shop for a little longer – me giving him ideas on how he can engage and build communities, and why it’s so important.
“So, in general, what does ‘community’ mean to you?” he asked.
I paused. I’m not sure if I’ve ever really thought about the answer to this question, it’s always just been assumed, I suppose.
“A community is a place where people can feel comfortable. Where people can trust other members of the community and the leader. A community is a place where people can build relationships with other people. A community gives people a place to be themselves and interact, engage, learn, grow with each other,” my arms gestured with passion and excitement (like they do whenever I start talking about community and social media and bringing people together).
It would be hard to argue I was not excited about my job building communities for a living.
He rested his elbow on the armrest separating us, and his chin in his hand and asked, “Now, how does your job, your work, your independence, affect your relationships with men?”
I nearly choked.
“Uh, that’s a pretty personal question, dontcha think?” I could feel my cheeks flush.
He was silently awaiting my response.
For some reason, I was compelled to tell him everything. To tell him that It’s hard. That dating is hard. That time is hard to divide up and finding people who are deserving of that time is even harder. That sometimes, I feel like I’m intimidating despite thinking I’m quite down-to-earth and approachable. That I’m at a tricky age where it feels like I’m still too young to get married but too old to “mess around.” But that what I want, right now, is something comfortable and easy and…right.
So I did. And I provided my list of preconceived excuses as to why I can’t find that comfort and ease and “rightness.”
“San Francisco is a transient city. People don’t know how long they’re going to be there, how long they’ll stay. It’s a city of movement and change, and with that comes the challenge of stability and commitment. It’s just…hard. People have different views on relationships in San Francisco. Many of which are extraordinarily liberal. I’ve set boundaries for myself. I know what I want and what I deserve, and I won’t settle for anything less than that,” I argued.
“Nor should you,” he replied after a few seconds of thought. “I admire your strength and your ability to be happy on your own.”
We discussed how it took me months to realize that despite moving to San Francisco by myself and living with no one but my cat, I wasn’t really alone. I have slowly become comfortable with being in my own company.
“Connectedness is through the heart. If you don’t know your own heart, you can’t connect with someone else’s,” he leaned in as a half-smile crept across his face.
He got it. I’m getting to know my own heart.
We talked about how young people would rather have someone, anyone, than be seemingly alone in the world. We talked about how I should never compromise what I stand for and the boundaries I have set, but that relationships are built on compromises. You just have to decide what you are willing to compromise and what you are not and then find that someone who will change and grow as you do.
“Enough about me,” I exhaled. “What about you?”
I learned a little of his history – he was visiting Hawaii and lives in Colorado. He travels to Costa Rica many times to build teamwork and community within his religious atmosphere. He thoroughly enjoys these trips, and the trips to Hawaii.
One day, I’m not certain as to how long ago, he was talking to his brother about his environmental practices. His brother, a free spirit, travels the world for environmental research.
In this conversation, he asked his brother, “Where do you get your love for nature, your free spirit from?”
After a long pause, his brother replied, “From you.”
He tried to put together his brother’s response having not realized he had had such an impact on his brother’s life. He was athletic throughout school – swam, played sports, was outside all the time. It was at this time, he began looking into his life. Much to his surprise, he realized that all of his academic success was due to his brother.
They were living each other’s lives.
Shortly after this conversation, his brother was diagnosed with stage four liver cancer and passed away only a few weeks later.
It was a huge, unexpected loss to him and his family. And now? He’s been left to redefine his life. Re-figure out what he wants to do. Re-learn what he loves.
“So, give me some advice, Lauren,” he said. “What do you think I should do to restart everything?”
My heart sunk with the tale of this story, this undeserving man going through an incredibly tough time in his life, yet being entirely transparent to a perfect stranger.
I thought for a few moments.
“Write,” I poignantly advocated. “Write.”
He smiled and told me I wasn’t the first person to tell him to write.
“When I need clarity in my life, and even when I don’t, writing helps me focus. It centers me. I don’t always think about what I write. Sometimes I just sit down with my journal and free-flow – just write what comes to my mind. Many times, I don’t read what I’ve written until the entire journal is full. That way, there’s no chance in criticizing myself until the moment I was feeling has long passed,” I explained.
“But, what if I don’t have time?”
“Make time. Busy-ness is not an excuse. Ever.”
You know what else I told him? I told him about my life list. How I created a list of things I want to do before I die and how it’s helped give me attainable goals and things to aspire to do in a life short-lived on this planet. Making this list helps redefine what impassions you, what makes you smile, what scares you, and with each check mark next to each item on the list, you grow stronger and centered.
“So, let’s say I put something on my life list that I’m afraid of? Take writing for example – if I put that on my list to accomplish, I’m deeply afraid of it,” he stated.
“What about writing scares you?” I asked.
“The fact that I might actually have something to say. That I might actually succeed. And I just don’t know it yet.”
“That’s the best kind of fear to conquer,” I said.
“Will you hold me to it?” He asked, nearly begging.
At this time, the flight attendant barked over the intercom telling all passengers to prepare for landing. The two and a half hour flight from San Francisco to Denver felt like fifteen minutes. Fifteen whole minutes. Filled with honesty and frankness with a complete stranger who made it so incredibly easy to just talk.
These moments are only possible when you’re open, undistracted, and willing to share and gain and learn. These moments happen between moments. Between moments where we’re too busy to notice someone is hurting. Where we’re too distracted to focus on what makes us happy and how we choose to define our lives. Where we’re too interested in technology to take a moment and appreciate being with our own heart. Where we’re too scared to talk about life and death and what we want to achieve before we reach the latter.
These moments will never occur if we’re too self-righteous to open up to a complete stranger on an airplane. Or anywhere you are – let your guard down and you just might be surprised as to how these moments make you feel human again.