Strangers on a Plane: Be Willing to Be Bothered

To be seen.

To be heard.

To be valued.

These are three things all human beings desire.

Yet, we can get so caught up in our own lives that we miss opportunities to connect with other human beings in a meaningful, authentic way. All of us have things to do and hate to think we’ve wasted any of our precious time.

After speaking at a conference in Vegas earlier this year, I prepared for a long day of travel back to the East Coast. The first leg of my trip brought me to Denver for a brief layover before the final three hours back to Baltimore. On the full flight to Denver, I sat at a window seat, and a middle-aged man in glasses sat between me and the aisle passenger who was en route to Albany, New York, my mother’s hometown.

I noticed he didn’t have much regard for personal space and was a bit more in my bubble than I would’ve preferred, but I didn’t let it get to me. After he ordered two screwdrivers on an empty stomach for a 90-minute flight, I have to admit, I didn’t know what to expect, but we ended up having a lovely conversation.

He told me about his concerns about his daughter going away to college next year to play soccer and shared his fears around her safety and wellbeing. She grew up in a protected and guarded environment and hasn’t learned how to cook or do her laundry, even though he and his wife love to cook and his wife used to own a cleaning company. But she’s a smart girl, a talented athlete, he assured me; she has a good head on her shoulders and strong values.

He talked about his wife and how he doesn’t deserve her. He told me how fantastic she is and how she takes care of their grandson, cleans and landscapes her son’s home, and shares his joy of food and cooking. He said he doesn’t know how his kids turned out as well as they did, despite how much he messed up as a dad. He said they are who they are in spite of him. He shared that his wife owned her own cleaning business and recently retired. He talked about his kids and his grandchildren. His 2-year-old grandson, Albert, that he couldn’t wait to see upon his arrival in Denver.

I could sense his discomfort with seriousness and authentic emotion, as he frequently made side remarks that seemed to be a cover for his discomfort with talking about deeper, personal topics.

I told him about my work, my family, nieces and nephews, journey with overdoing it. He asked me where my overachieving comes from. I told him I’m afraid of being worthless or being nothing and knew how ridiculous it sounded. “You are smart and communicate well. You’ll be fine.” He said I should have three kids and make it my mission to have a significant impact on their lives as my legacy. We’ll see about the three kiddos part, though the idea of having my legacy run through my family was one that resonated.

We landed in Denver and deplaned. I waited for him at the gate to shake his hand and say goodbye. He insisted on giving me a hug, and with that, we went our separate ways.

I had other things I could have been doing on that flight. I had emails to respond to, books I could have been reading, and conference summaries I could have been writing.

But the stranger next to me wanted to engage, to connect, and to be seen, and fortunately, for that 90-minute flight, I was willing to connect.

What would have happened if I hadn’t let myself be “bothered”?

Very likely, nothing significant would have changed in either of our lives as a result of not connecting, but why not take a moment to have a shared experience with another human being if it’s possible to do so?

I was grateful for my time with the stranger on the plane, and I’m glad I was able to get over some of my initial judgments of him and connect over conversation.

As I boarded my connecting flight to my final destination of Baltimore, I saw two empty seats near the front of the plane next to grey-haired woman with glasses wearing a red fleece jacket. I scooted by her to sit at the window seat, and we started talking almost immediately, hoping it would deter someone from sitting between us.

She was quite chatty and so full of life that I couldn’t help but engage with her. Her name was Valerie, and she was flying to Baltimore to visit her daughter and grandchildren in Fredericksburg. She told me she had always been “a religious person” but had a one-night stand that ended up in pregnancy. Not knowing what else to do, she married the father and ended up in an abusive relationship that she ultimately left. Out of it came a blessing – three children that she clearly adores.

She lost her fortune in the 2008 economic recession and has been living modestly ever since. She suffers from a great deal of pain due to numerous injuries and accidents throughout her life and spends 90 minutes moving each morning so she can feel good enough to engage in the day. She said her mind is still very active, but her body is a bit limited because of the amount of pain she experiences on a daily basis. Nevertheless, she has maintained an optimistic attitude:

“I can either sit around and wallow in my pain and do nothing, or I can go out and do things and hopefully forget about the pain!”

A retired graphic designer and associate professor, Valerie is nearly 70 years old. “I got my second Master’s degree when I was 50,” she told me proudly. As a young girl, she always loved coloring, but there was a boy in one of her classes who was so artistically talented that she didn’t feel like she measured up, so she dropped art and didn’t pick it up again until her mid-50s.

With a passion for learning, she took up painting – acrylic and digital – about 15 years ago. Painting is now a source of great joy for her. She paints scenery inspired by the vegetation, landscape, cafes, wine and coffee, and people of her hometown in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.

I asked her if she had any pictures of her artwork, and she excitedly pulled out her phone to show me. One, in particular, was of a scene from her favorite cafe, Bakery by the Lake at Parkside.

She showed me pictures of digital artwork she created of horses and dogs and friends. One was a painting she created of her friend, who is nearly blind, that was a rendering of a photograph from a trip he took to Italy. She included his wife and seeing eye dog in the picture and when he saw the picture through whatever limited vision remains, he wept. She touches people with her paintings, bringing them to life on the canvas and giving them a sense of belonging.

Her blue eyes sparkled, as she continued sharing more of her story and life with me.

She told me about her best friend, Andy, who is nearly two decades her junior but whom she delights in and vice versa. He told her he thinks one of the reasons they met was for her to show him what it was like to be young.

She loves spending time with her friends at coffee shops where they are regular patrons, and being with her sweet little granddaughter, Alexandra.

“’Simplify and laugh every day,’ that’s my motto,” she told me as she smiled playfully.

Valerie asked me what I do and I told her I help rehumanize the workplace with compassion, gratitude, caring, and kindness. Her face lit up. “What a wonderful thing to do! Your work is so needed in our country right now. People are so unkind to each other.”

As our plane made its final descent, she thanked me for listening and for taking so much time to look at the pictures of her family, hometown and paintings. She apologized for being a bother and keeping me from other things I could be doing.

As I write this, it saddens me that we feel like we have to apologize for “wasting” people’s time when all we are trying to do is connect with another human being, to be seen, to be heard, to feel like we matter.

It’s like each of us is still five years old, hoping mom or dad will notice what we’ve created, built, drawn, or painted and tell us it’s beautiful and that we are important. We are hardwired to connect and we long to be seen.

So many people feel alone and like no one really cares about what they think or feel or have to say. So they don’t “bother” people to have conversations and instead keep their earbuds in, their heads down, and watch yet another movie on their phone.

Sometimes, our fear of rejection overrides our deep longing for connection.

Perhaps all of us could be a bit more selfless and not be so quick to try to protect ourselves from conversations with strangers. It has become entirely too common to outright ignore people in our increasingly digital age.

Even if the person seems to be a bit of a jerk, why not give them a chance? I’ve found that the most disgruntled and unkind people are the ones who need love and attention the most but are too stubborn or hurt to ask for it.

You might be the only person who makes them feel heard all day.

You might be the only person who truly sees them.

You might be the only person who makes them feel like they matter.

The next time you’re on a plane, on the train, in line at the store or standing in an elevator and you have an opportunity to interact with another human being, let it happen.

Take your ear buds out and put your phone down. Notice the people around you. Initiate connection.

All of us deeply long to be seen, heard and valued. We want to feel like we belong, like we matter, like we are worth talking to and interacting with, like we have something worthwhile to say.

Think about what you can do to be more intentional in your interactions.

Be willing to be bothered.

Who knows, you might make a new friend.

Me and Valerie Scott!

For another powerful experience I had after meeting a stranger on a plane, check out this story about how to Be Somebody’s Mary.

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2 Comments

  1. Lori

    Love this story! I find I don’t have a choice as to whether I talk
    to strangers. People walk up to me in parking lots to tell me their
    life stories. A good way to meet some interesting people.

    • Rachel Druckenmiller

      That’s awesome, Lori! You must have a positive and inviting energy that draws people in. Keep doing what you do!

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