You can learn a lot about people while traveling. It doesn’t matter the mode of travel; each trip affords an opportunity to discern some insight about humanity.  As a suburbanite who spends way too much time in a car, I can be impatient, and mostly I am self-absorbed when I travel. For that reason, I am grateful when something jars me from my “zone” that is like a bubble around myself when I am in transit.

As I schlepped my habitually heavy suitcases to the check-in counter for a flight to Tel Aviv, I was relieved to have earned “elite status” with Continental Airline – affording me the privilege of going straight to the front of the line in a sparsely used line. Who wouldn’t like such an amenity? But I didn’t feel quite so honored when I got to the check-in counter. Oh, yes, it was quick and easy. But the agent who helped me was distracted. She was engaged in a conversation with a coworker about his upcoming personal travel. I had to interrupt her repeatedly to ask her questions regarding my travel. She did her job—I got all of my answers. But she barely made eye contact with me and seemed relieved to have time to renew her conversation as she placed my bag on the conveyor belt. I wasn’t offended, but a little while later I realized how the exchange had left me just a bit (unconsciously) lonely.

I enjoy traveling by myself, with the time to collect my thoughts. (I hasten to add that even so, I prefer traveling with my beloved husband, Bob, but that’s different.)  So I was contentedly making my way through the airport, eventually arriving at the gate.  As is the rule for passengers traveling to Tel Aviv on Continental from Newark, I checked-in again at the gate. The gate agent looked at my ticket and nodded slightly and said, “Mrs. Small, your seat has been changed.” Having carefully arranged my travel so I would have the comfort of an aisle seat for the 10+ hour flight, my reaction of distress was immediately evident on my face. Before I could utter a word, the agent added, “Don’t worry, you are still in an aisle seat.” Then with a kind demeanor she said that she had personally changed my seat because another passenger, whom she said was “emotionally distressed,” had needed a change and I would be better off not sitting next to that person. Only my imagination would tell me what that meant, but I didn’t care to question it. The agent admitted she had been waiting for me so that she could explain. Oddly, I felt taken care of.

She quickly engaged another agent to help with another question regarding my connection. When the other agent didn’t have the information, they told to board the plane; they’d find out for me.  Moments later, as I settled into my seat, the gate agent tapped me on the shoulder, “Mrs. Small”, she said, “Here’s the information you need.”   I bristle and often react when someone addresses me as “Mrs.” – I viscerally dislike the title out of feminist sensibilities. But this time, I felt like a warm blanket had been wrapped around my shoulders; once again I felt cared for.

In that moment I was reminded of the power and importance of personal connection. In the anonymity of traveling, we are cocooned. But deep down we all really want to matter. We need caring from each other, even from insignificant people who we meet just once, momentarily. In our individualistic culture, we are good at conducting our everyday moments with concern for ourselves. But the concern that even an anonymous person can offer us along this journey can make all the difference in the world.

I am reminded of Yetzi’at Mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt, when my people’s ancestors emerged from slavery in a hurried mass of humanity. Tradition has it that 600,000 Hebrew slaves and sympathetic Egyptians left Egypt and headed into the wilderness with faith as their only plan. When they arrived at Mt. Sinai, they experienced God’s presence so profoundly that they spoke with one voice, proclaiming that they would listen and obey whatever God demanded of them. How could 600,000 people have experienced God at the same time? What happened in that revelatory moment?

I thought about this as the plane flew toward Israel. Perhaps this is what they felt – that God spoke to each of them personally by name; they felt that God had been waiting for them. They were in the wilderness, but God assured them – each one of them personally – that their needs mattered.  It would be ok; they were not alone.

We are commanded to behave in Godly ways, to be God’s partners. Two brief encounters boarding a crowded plane reminded me of one of the ways we are bidden to do this: to find opportunities to notice and care for each other, friend and stranger alike. I felt inspired to more try to step out of my “zone”, the bubble around my individual self, to seek more ways to reach out in simple ways to bring caring to ordinary encounters.  The need for personal connection is shared by all of us- it is our way out of the wilderness.  The creation narrative that opens the Hebrew Bible expresses the teaching that we were not meant to live alone – that is: to live in aloneness. What a difference we can make in each other’s lives and in our world by wrapping each other in the warm blanket of personal caring.

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