I am enthralled and enamored by air travel. There’s something about squishing down in a tiny seat next to a total stranger in the middle of a stale-aired, steel tube for three hours that makes me genuinely happy. I love the subtle chess game of the armrest. I love minuscule portions of food. I love the supreme effort of will that flight attendants put forward to be kind and benevolent at all times. I love SkyMall, Biscoff, and pocket-sized toilets. I even love smearing Crisco on my luggage to get it in the overhead compartments.
For me, though, the pinnacle of air travel is the chance to meet new people. Regardless of who’s next to me, once the buckles are clicked and the carry-on is stowed, I go into the same spiel: “Hi! My name’s Nic and we’ll be flying together today.” I then rapidly and respectfully find out where they’re going, where they’re from, and what kind of day they’re having, all the while divulging the same info about myself.
Having established an air of safety (pun!) by volunteering personal information about myself as well as taking interest in my fellow traveler, I back off completely. I figure I’ve made it clear that conversing is an option, but not mandatory and that if they want to talk, the ball is in their court. Then, I wait.
Not for long, usually. The average wait time until someone asks me a conversation-starting question is three minutes. I’m serious. Though I usually assume that any person next to me just wants to close off and zone out, I am nearly always surprised by how quickly they re-start the conversation, excitedly and willingly confiding hopes, dreams, doubts, failures, pains, heartaches, and fears. I’ve lost count of the times a total stranger has turned to me and revealed something startling or surprising about his or her life. Granted, some of their willingness to open up may be because of my outgoing personality, but I think it goes far deeper than that.
There is something about the act of traveling that can open us up to introspection and the new experiences it can bring. When we travel, we leave most of our lives behind in very practical ways. We physically leave our comfort zones, our familiar surroundings, and focus our attention on what comes next.
Traveling, especially air, forces us to “power down our phones and all electronic devices”, pack all of our bulky belongings at our feet or above our heads, sit still, and face forward. All the normal distractions are conveniently forced into the background, swallowed up by the white noise of engines and air vents, and, if we don’t drift off to sleep (like the guy next to me right now in 31A), we just sit and think.
A couple of things usually happen when we just sit and think. First, we become more prepared for our destination. With the jumbled combination of kids, jobs, bills, and keeping an eye on both world news and the latest Psych episode, we can find ourselves on an exhausted version of autopilot. In that frantic state, it’s difficult to be adequately prepared for anything that lies ahead, be it today or ten years from now. We can easily become that guy who is hiding his still-powered-up cell phone from the flight attendant because he just has to complete one last email or round of “Scramble with Friends”, thereby missing the very important “safety dance”. When the externals are finally stripped away, it is much easier to set our minds on the destination, what awaits us there, and what is most important. “The prudent man looks where he is going.” (Prov. 14:15)
Second, the necessary minimalism of travel presents us with the opportunity to actually notice the person right next to us. It’s quite difficult to notice our fellow travelers when our ears are plugged, minds are full, and eyes are distracted. For me, anyway, when I’m consumed with the details of apps and obligations, the whole world can fade into a sort of numb conglomerate of Charlie Brown teachers. I start to think ill of complete strangers simply for getting in line before me. If I’m not careful, I can start to forget that the big-footed man next to me who keeps sighing and shifting is actually a great person, created in God’s image, not a mere irritant. Being fastened in next to someone is a good reminder that the world doesn’t revolve around me and my problems.
I think that the combination of these two points is why people are so willing to spill their guts to a nasal stranger like me. With the more important aspects of life in the forefront, and a friendly, open ear to listen to them, my fellow travelers seem eager for the opportunity to speak their minds and hearts. Many 1-hour flights that I’ve been on have turned into in-depth conversations and mutual encouragement, largely because two people decided to just be humans for a spell and pay attention to each other.
The same is true for all of us as Christians. It can be so easy to forget where we’re going, what we’re doing, and why we’re here. The worries of the world can choke out our awareness of reality. If we’re not careful, we can find ourselves forgetting that we are on a pilgrimage with a destination, what we do while on that pilgrimage matters, and that there are countless others with us on the journey. We must remember that we are a divinely discontent people who have not reached home. Every time we find ourselves settling in and hunkering down, we must rouse ourselves, dowse our faces with some cold-yet-holy water, and stow our shtuff in its rightful place.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said, “Christian liturgy is liturgy on the way, a liturgy of pilgrimage toward the transfiguration of the world”. Our goal is to reach unity with our Beloved, yes, but we are also called to introduce as many people as is possible to their Beloved, as well. I sometimes wish there was a uniformed flight attendant waiting at the front door of every church on Sunday, cheerily commanding us all to un-plug and pay attention to where we’re headed and who’s with us. Heck, I’d love someone waiting at the door of my car to do the same every time I get in, because then I’d not only have clarity, but free mini-pretzels, as well.