Sitting in 16E

I walked down the plane aisle, doing the dance of eyeing the progression of seat numbers, narrowing myself and my dangling possessions so I didn’t smack every elbow I passed, and remaining self-aware enough to not blindly step on the heels of the person in front of me. The line was pressing backwards, tightening in on our personal space. A tall dark-haired teenager had pulled the no-no move of putting her carry-on in the overhead bin several rows behind her seat and was now trying to inch her way back against the tide to reach her seat.

I sat down in seat 16E. The row was empty. I hoped I would get lucky and have it to myself. I ruffled through my yellow bag and retrieved a crossword puzzle, a pencil, and my headphones and prepared to settle in for a leisurely hour of Radio Lab and puzzling. It was an activity I rarely made time for.

A tall older man stopped at the end of the row and smiled. He towered over me, and I couldn’t help but compare his height to Scott’s. Same build in a form decades older. My neighbor had arrived. He gestured to the window, and I stood up to let him pass. We both chuckled when he sat down and his knees came into full contact with the seat in front of him. 

“It’s what I get for not paying to pick my seat,” he laughed. “I usually go for an aisle seat so I can sprawl out a bit more.”

We chatted about his experience flying with the bare-fare airline I was trying for the first time, then moved on to what was taking us to Baltimore. He told me about the business he owned with his son and his twelve-hour visit for business dealings. I told him about my sister-in-law’s bridal shower. We talked of his children and grandchildren, his wife’s recent retirement, and his career. 

He was quick to smile, his face creasing in familiar lines, and he had the habit of removing his glasses when he gave an explanation, gently gesturing with them as he spoke. 

Somewhere around 30,000 feet, I mentioned my studies in spiritual formation and my time in seminary. 

“Spiritual formation—” he said, his inflection telling me he recognized the term but wasn’t sure what to say. He paused. “My sister is a nun,” he offered. “She has an interesting story—you could write about her.” He referred back to our previous discussion of my writing endeavors. 

He proceeded to tell me about his sister’s work and the story of how she quit a career as a psychology professor at Columbia to begin a religious order in Manhattan. “I was a bit frustrated when she told us what she was going to do. It’s a lot easier to tell people your sister is a Columbia professor than to tell them she’s a nun.” He laughed. 

Another long pause. He was thinking.

“Spiritual formation,” he repeated. “I read a spiritual book recently.”

“Oh really? What was it called?”

“I don’t remember,” he admitted, smiling. 

In that moment I began to sense what was happening. His comments hadn’t been as much about connecting in conversation through some sort of common interest as they had been the need to prove something. He heard I went to seminary, and he felt the need to demonstrate and justify his own spirituality. He mentioned a book whose title, author, and content he couldn’t remember—why? To prove he was “spiritual”? So I wouldn’t ask questions? So I wouldn’t judge? 

What should I have said to my plane buddy Jim? What should I have done to put him at ease, to make him see I didn’t think less of him? Should I have changed the subject? Offered up stories about the books I’m reading now? Should I have pointedly told him the Gospel (note: this would probably not solve the problem of putting him at ease)?

I wrestle with these situations. I struggle over the best approach in these instances of conversations in a vacuum. You’re locked in place for an hour beside a human you’ll most likely never meet again. What do you do?