I arrived at the flight gate before 5:00 a.m. in time to hear the airline attendant announce mechanical failure and the flight had just been cancelled. We would be taken by bus to an airport several hours away. My revised flight meant an additional layover and of course, middle seats in the last rows of the plane.

Many hours later, I am ready to board my final flight and I am tired. In front of me are a group of college age males talking together about what they might find on the Pacific Beach and they weren’t looking for seals or shells. I felt my gut tighten in response to their conversation about women. I was most repelled by the shortest, loudest, tobacco chewing one in the group. I hope I don’t have to share the whole journey with this group, I thought.

The line moved forward. I stepped into the plane and walked the full aisle to the second to last row — middle seat. I settled in. I looked up as someone turned into the seat beside me. The young man I most resented in the line! How could it be. Four hours ahead of me. How will I survive?

He fell asleep as soon as the plane took off except for occasional spitting of tobacco juice into his coffee cup. In his oblivion he leaned over ever so lightly against me. My frustration from the day turned toward him. How dare he trespass on my allotted space. Then I remembered the words I had read that morning of the ancient mystic Julian of Norwich— that the goodness of God is deeper in me than my own flesh.

I realized I had a choice in that moment. I could be “against him”, define him as other, rebuke him from my world, push him away; or I could recognize that we were threads of the same cloth interwoven in this common space of humanity. I had resented the way he turned women into objects, only to discover I had turned him into an object as well. I could chose to be present to him - human to human, rather than reject him in our difference.

In this moment, I was being addressed. I hear an invitation. I had no choice in seat partner. I have a choice in my response. I can feed negative energy in the form of anger or resentment, or I can relax, freeing my energy for compassion and curiosity without abandoning genuine needs I have. What did he hold beneath the bravado? What wounds traced the contour of his soul? I sat in that space with him feeling compassion and care, recognizing that beneath the disturbances and messiness of each of our lives we share a common humanity. My welfare is connected to his welfare. Even without words, my energy shapes the space we share.

“The alternative to being is reacting, and reacting interrupts being and annihilates.” D.W. Winicott

Janet Stauffer