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I Was 'That Guy' on the Plane Who Bumped Into You

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So you’re a mother of two young boys, let’s say about 7 and 9 years old. You’re on an airplane that was delayed out of Minneapolis. So when you reach Phoenix, not only are you behind schedule, but given the late hour, you’re tired and you know your travel day’s not even over yet. When the plane lands, you keep your boys clear of the crushing flow in the aisle until there’s a gap in the line. Each of your sons pulls his own roller-bag. Quite honestly, you need them to because you’ve got a carry-on bag that’s as big as you can fit in the overhead and it’s almost half your size. Yep, you’re pretty petite and yet you have to get your two boys and six carry-on items to your next gate before you miss that flight.

The boys have gotten into the aisle, but now the flight attendants have taken advantage of the break in the flow of people help an elderly gentleman off the plane. The aisle is at a stand-still, but the guy behind you keeps nudging into you. Tired and ready to stand your ground and shield your boys, you turn and let the guy know he needs to stop pushing you. He says he’s sorry, but you’re not buying it. Another flight attendant close by says to “be nice,” but she’s not the one getting pushed and she doesn’t have another flight to catch. No matter, the guy has backed off now and there will be no more of that. You’ve done your job. Now that the aisle is flowing again, you coach your boys off the plane and then head quickly up the jet-way with them in tow.

Here’s the catch… I’m the guy. I’m the guy who was sorry he was bumping into you. I’m the guy who said, “I’m sorry,” only to have you reply, “No, you’re not!” That’s when the flight attendant chimed in. I’m that guy.

I’ve tried to imagine what that moment might have been like for you. You were about half my size, and with two boys to protect. I get it. But my heart goes out to anyone whose first instinctive response is to be adversarial and even confrontational. Then again, being a petite mother of two has simply not been my life’s experience, so I have no idea what that’s like. I can only imagine you have to become pretty tough.

But to be honest, it felt like my life’s experiences were anything but up for consideration in our brief encounter. You felt a violation of your personal space, and you may have even felt like your kids were under threat of being over-run. So at that level I immediately understood your response and let it go. But there’s a catalog of things you didn’t know that were simultaneously driving my side of the story. You understandably made some assumptions, but in fairness those assumptions were simply wrong. I was sincerely sorry I had bumped into you. I was sorry about a lot of things that evening. Let me name a few to show how encounters are not always as they may appear on the surface.

I was sorry that, like you, the delay in the flight made my family’s connection next to impossible. I was sorry that another traveler had cut me off from my wife and son as they exited the plane and then my son’s roller-bag had gotten caught as I tried to get it out of our row. You see, I was carrying it for him as we were in a horrible hurry to get to another concourse for our connection. I was sorry my knees are both in dire need of replacement after years of wear and tear from sports and life in general. They don’t hold up like they used to, so when the push of the crowded aisle behind me came upon my back as I stood right behind you, I was honestly sorry I could not hold it back completely. I was simply not strong enough and so I wobbled up into you a couple times as I myself was being pushed. I was sincerely sorry I could not shield you and your boys completely as my natural instinct charged me to do. My knees failed us both, but I assure you I tried.

By then my wife and son were off the plane and up the jet-way, well ahead of me. While I was glad they had a good chance of making our connection, I knew my chances were slipping away. I knew I could not run once I got on the concourse because of my knees and I knew they would not hold the flight for me. I also knew I had the keys to our vehicle in my laptop case. The thought of those two getting back to the Reno airport after midnight – and still an hour’s drive from home – without me and without keys was sickening. My son had just completed a full week’s worth of medical testing, evaluations, and appointments in Minneapolis for his medical condition, Hurler syndrome. That’s right, I’m a special needs dad and the irony in our encounter is I’m wired to care, protect, and stand tall for others.

So while I was admittedly a bit frantic from being separated from my family, there was no way I would have tried to push through you or your boys to get where I needed to go. I was raised far better than that, but I was legitimately sorry if it seemed to you like I would have.

In our brief encounter, my inability to fully shield you from the crushing push of the crowd behind me led to a misunderstanding. You were in your world, full of its challenges, and I was in mine. When the bumps occurred, I told you I was sorry, but you chose not to believe me. But I get it now, I really do.

On the flight home, instead of stewing over my wounded feelings or my hurt pride, I began composing this post in my head. Doing so made me realize there are a million things about your day, your destination, and your life I don’t know about either. It made me realize that while I know your assumption of me had been wrong, my initial assumptions about you had probably been just as wrong. We never know the things with which someone else is struggling at any given moment. All we can do is resolve ourselves to think outside of our own skins for a bit when we’re in those situations. This world is not our story alone. There are many sides of it, and all those other sides are just as real and just as valid as our own.

I have no idea who you are, where you were headed, or if you and your two fine young men made your connecting flight. All I know is as I handed my ticket to the agent at my gate, I sighed a huge sigh of relief as she said, “You just made it.” I had made it to my flight, and at that moment that was all that mattered to me.

As we taxied out, however, I felt convicted that me making my flight was not all that mattered. Somewhere in that airport there was a harried mother and her two resolute sons who were running for their own gate the last time I saw them. So while I thanked the Lord I had made my connection, I then prayed you and your boys had too. I wondered where you were headed. I wondered what called you there. Was it for fun? Was it for something heavy or serious? I just didn’t know. Then I realized that it really didn’t matter why. We’re all called to extend grace to one another. I was filled with hope on your behalf. Instead of being sorry, I was hopeful. I was hopeful you and your sons were safe. I was hopeful you and your sons were happy. I was hopeful the next time I’m in a situation like ours I will remember first to consider your story. I was hopeful you might as well.

While I’m still sorry for the way things happened there in the aisle of that airplane, I am hopeful I am changed for the better because of it… and that’s nothing to be sorry about.

Originally published: August 9, 2016
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