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People-watching–in airports particularly–has always fascinated me.  There are such varied reasons for people traveling, and the associated emotions of their purposes. Our culture has a simple way of characterizing this dichotomy: at customs, we are asked, “Business, or pleasure?”

For business, people are constantly coming or going.  You can easily spot the business travelers with their tiny carry-on bags, suits, and confident air with which they navigate the crowds.

Then there is the pleasure group.  A family wearing mouse ears returning from a theme park. Sun worshippers returning from some far-flung beach destination. Adventurers traveling to hike or fish in remote locations. Sports enthusiasts decked out with pride in their team’s colors.

On this particular trip, I fit into the pleasure group.  A year prior I attended a wellness retreat in Arizona that left such a lasting impact, that I decided to return for a deeper dive of self-reflection.  I was excited, looking forward to the reflective time to focus on reacquainting with myself.  I left my two young children in the care of my partner and hopped on a plane for a week of heart-centered work.

I departed from my home airport in Minneapolis (MSP) with my carefully packed carry-on after spending the night at my mom and stepdad’s house. For this particular segment, I was in a window seat—which I typically try to avoid for the sake of feeling boxed in.  Travelers filed past to take their own seats while I carefully situated my journal, books, and water for easy reach.  I was determined to finish my book before getting to the retreat and had made a pact to myself to squelch any side conversation for the sake of focusing on my reading.

I pulled out my book and a pencil and commenced reading.

The middle seat between me and the person on the aisle remained open and for a moment I was hopeful that I had somehow lucked out, scoring the only unfilled seat on the flight. The flight attendant even stopped to verify that the space was vacant, marking a note on her notepad before flitting off to assist with preparing for the flight.

Then just before the crew was about to shut the cabin door, a man boarded, carrying small personal items in each hand, no bag in tow.  He was a short, stocky, middle-aged man who looked like what I picture the state of California would look like in human form.  His arms were three times my size–strong, but not in a manufactured way–and were covered in sleeves of tattoos. It wasn’t clear to me which group–business or pleasure–he fit into.

He excused himself and slid into the seat between me and the aisle traveler. I kept my nose in my book, determined to stay on task. Focus.

As he took his seat, fumbling with the buckle between us, I noticed that his hands were trembling.  He was visibly distraught, eyes darting in any direction that didn’t involve looking someone in the eye.

I was torn. This tough-looking man was clearly on edge and it seemed that no one else had noticed.  My little conscience reminded me that the sole purpose for my trip was to slow down, reflect, and connect.

Waiting for him to get situated, I tucked the book into my lap, holding the page with my index finger.

Quietly I asked, “Are you okay?”

He froze, then turned to look me straight in the eye. He responded, “No, I’m not. I just got a call that my mom is going on hospice. I’m going out to see her. I hope I get there in time.”

Crickets.  I made a mental note of my page before closing the book fully and turning to look him straight in the eye. I could feel my eyes welling up.

I’m sorry.” I said to him, then responded quietly, “I can tell that you’re upset. Would you like to talk?” He visibly relaxed.

Extending his hand, he nodded and replied, “I’m Chris.”  My brother’s name.

For the next hour of the flight, I listened as he shared story after story memories of his mom and his family.  We laughed together and cried together. It was a beautiful moment in time that I was grateful to be able to experience, and provide witness for him.

Chris thanked me profusely.  He commented on how remarkable it was that I noticed and reached out for connection.  That really made me think.

How many other times would I have buried my nose in my book and minded my own business?  Had I not been in a mindset of pausing to take notice–all part of the wellness work that I was headed to Arizona to do that week–would I have noticed?  How many others didn’t notice, or noticed, but stayed in “their lane”?

More importantly, if Chris and my roles had been reversed, would I have had the courage to open up to a complete stranger?

When the wheels touched down on the runway in Salt Lake City, we were no longer strangers.  Before parting ways in the terminal, we shared a hug and wished each other well.  It was an incredible human experience.  One that would have been missed if both of us had not slowed down to take notice.

It’s a reminder that under the garb we wear, despite the masks we project, we still share a common condition: humanity.  Authentic connection requires vulnerability and courage by both the giver as well as the receiver.

At that moment, none of our differences mattered–not our political ideologies, our spirituality, our cultural and ethnic differences.  And that made all the difference.

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