I am generally a private person, by temperament a fairly strong introvert and not chatty by nature. Needless to say, sitting on an airplane wedged between two strangers and having no escape is not on my list of top 10 favorite things to do.
I’m not antisocial (well, maybe a little?). And I’m quite capable of enjoying myself at a party. But even then, social events drain my energy. As I said to my wife after returning exhausted from officiating a wedding in another state: “I think I used up all my extraversion points this weekend.”
If you’re an introvert reading this, you get it.
There’s always that bit of non-verbal negotiation between passengers when you get on a plane. Some of those already seated, instead of putting their so-called “personal item” under the seat in front of them, put it on the seat next to them. They then avoid making eye contact with any of the passengers coming down the aisle, effectively sending the message, “I really don’t want you to sit next to me, so if you want to sit here, you’re going to have to rudely interrupt this very important reading I’m doing and ask.”
As I boarded the plane that would take me to the wedding venue, I saw a woman in a window seat with two empty seats next to her. She was staring studiously out the window, so I had to get her attention to ask if the extra seats were taken. She smiled politely, said no, and went back to staring out the window.
I sat down directly next to her, leaving the aisle seat open instead of leaving a space between us (and playing the non-verbal “Don’t sit here” game with the passengers behind me). It looked to be a full flight, so I only sat next to her to avoid someone else having to climb over me to get to the middle seat. But it was unexpected behavior that piqued her curiosity; she asked why I did it, and I explained.
Thus the conversation began. It didn’t take long, of course, for her to find out that I was a minister on my way to do a wedding, which then shaped the tone and direction of the rest of our brief time together. She told me stories about family regrets and spiritual worries, about a failed marriage and a successful remarriage, about the son-in-law who went to seminary and walked away an atheist. On the return flight, I sat next to an off-duty flight attendant who also had tales to tell of family and spiritual concerns. Occasionally, I offered counsel; but for the most part, I listened, asked questions, and empathized.
Many times, as I’ve boarded planes, I have wondered about the people sitting next to me. Will this be what some have called “a divine appointment”? Will God put specific people on my right or left because he wants me to share the gospel with them? Perhaps. But frankly, for me at least, that way of thinking can be a little grandiose. Sometimes, it’s a narcissistic and self-focused way of asking God to redeem my introvert’s anxiety by investing it with a higher purpose: Yes, all right, God, I’ll talk to them, but only if I get to be the hero.
What I really need is to get over myself and just be there, present and attentive. These were people with stories to tell; I was the safe stranger in whom they could confide with no fear of repercussions after we parted ways. I didn’t listen to their stories out of a reluctant sense of moral duty, but because by the grace of God I was allowed to see them as complex, fascinating people whom he loves.
And you know what? We don’t have to get on a plane to find others just as fascinating and equally loved. But you’ll never know until you listen.