We don’t care about one another as human beings. Our interests are purely our own. We are oblivious to the pain of others as long as our own comfort is secure. We lack empathy. The fates of those we don’t know, or who cannot help us, are no concern of ours. Our public smiles conceal our private aggressions. What we preach on social media, we fail to practice in person. Our privilege leads us to interpret minor inconveniences as major obstacles.
All this is, sad to say, true. The proof of its truth is an experience all of us who travel by air with any frequency have had. Here’s the scene:
You are a young mother traveling with a child under the age of one. Her name is Isabel. She has been fussy and out of sorts for the entire flight, which was delayed, and now you’re an hour and twenty minutes late arriving at the airport where you are to catch a connecting flight to visit your parents, who are going to meet their first grandchild for the first time.
As you land at your connecting airport, the clock is ticking. Your heart is racing. Your anxiety level is spiking. Back in seat 35F you’re checking the time every thirty seconds and re-calculating the odds of getting to your connecting flight before the gate closes. Your pilot announces that because you’re late arriving, another plane is parked at your assigned gate, and you’ll be waiting another five to ten minutes before you can taxi in.
You ask a flight attendant what gate you’re arriving at. It’s gate 8A. The gate for your connecting flight is gate 112, at the other end of the airport. You feel tears welling up. Isabel, alarmed at seeing your tears, begins bawling loudly.
By the time your plane begins taxiing to the gate, you’ve half-succeeded in pacifying Isabel. A flight attendant gets on the P.A. and makes this classic airline announcement:
“We have a number of passengers who have connecting flights. If those of you for whom [CITY NAME] is the final destination can please remain in your seats so those passengers can de-plane first and make their connections, we would appreciate it, and I’m sure they will, too.”
And then what happens?
With the baby on your belly carrier, you hop up the instant the plane stops and the seat belt chime sounds.
You yank your suitcase out of the overhead, conking a passenger on the head in your harried process.
People in row 34 let you through.
And then you’re stuck. Because nearly every single person in rows 1-33 has ignored the flight attendant’s request.
The passengers in First Class exit without a second thought. The rules don’t apply to them. Common courtesy is exactly that. Common.
You push past passengers blocking the aisle, excusing yourself as best you can. “Excuse me. Excuse me. Connecting flight. I’m going to miss my flight.” People look annoyed. Like they doubt you. Like you’re scamming them. [And it’s true, there are scammers who don’t have connecting flights who try to take advantage of an opening, and jump ahead of the queue in the aisle, which only hastens the Prisoner’s Dilemma outcome of Everyone for Themselves.] Screw it. You’ve got to make your connection. It’s biological. An overwhelming need for a mother to unite baby with grandparents. You keep pushing through. “Excuse me, ‘scuse me.”
You get to a an executive-looking man blocking the aisle in Row 15, putting on his jacket and taking his sweet time getting his bag from the overhead.
“Excuse me,” you ask, with urgent politeness, “Do you have a connecting flight?”
“I have a sixteen year-old daughter meeting me in her car,” he responds tartly, as if your predicaments equate.
“So you don’t have a connecting flight.”
“I have a sixteen year old daughter,” he says, as it it answers your question.
“Can’t she wait a few more more minutes?” you plead.
“She can’t wait,” he says, as he takes his place ahead of you in the queue of Everyone Who Can’t Wait.
“Then why don’t you teach her some patience?!” your hear yourself hiss at him. The executive-looking man glances back at you condescendingly, shakes his head at the people around him, as if he’s the one who deserves their sympathy for getting grief from the lady with the baby. As if to say, “Look at who has no patience!” As if to mark himself as a winner, and you a loser. Which is of course his game.
Through it all, none of the flight attendants have made a move to hold back the passengers who jumped up ahead of you. They’ve done their job. The only way they’ll get written up by the airline is if they stop someone from exiting the plane and that person complains. They’ve followed the rules, and they know the odds. In making the announcement, they helped you as much as the probability of getting written up says they can.
Finally you break free of your plane. Dash up the jetway. Orient yourself. And then make the breathless half-walk, half-trot the length of the airport, carrying your baby and your baggage like a crippled camel. The entire time, you don’t seen even one electric passenger cart you can hail. As you’re nearing collapse, you see Gate 112 in the distance. To your relief, they’ve held the flight for you. The gate attendants spot you and wave you on as if encouraging you to finish a marathon, which, in a way, you are. Your lungs are on fire. Your back hurts. Your legs are numb.
“Thank you for waiting,” you croak at the gate attendant as you stumble through the gate. Down the jetway. Boarding the plane, you catch annoyed looks from the passengers in First Class. Your frazzled Coach ass is the reason for their delay. You bang overweight passengers on the shoulders with your awkward cargo as you stumble up the aisle. Solicit a surly flight attendant to help you squeeze your suitcase into an overhead space. Excuse yourself once more as you scuttle past past a spray-tanned couple in your row, who exchange a look that says you and your baby are about to ruin their day, before collapsing with Isabel into your seat in 27A.
Once you’ve settled in and caught your breath, and are feeding Isabel a bottle, you find yourself, somewhat to your surprise, getting angry. The focus of your anger is the Man in Row 15–a flag-bearer for all Those Who Can’t Wait. You’re angry at how he made you a loser in his petty game. You find yourself promising Isabel that you will teach her patience. You promise her she will never play his game.
You will raise a daughter who cares about other human beings. Teach her that her interests are for sharing. You will help her feel the pain of the less fortunate, even as her own comfort is secure. She will be kind, considerate, and empathetic. Sensitive to the fates of those she doesn’t know, or who cannot help her, because she will understand that all our fates are intertwined. You will show her that her public expressions should reveal what’s in her heart. That she should practice what she preaches, in any medium. That she should honor the difference between a a minor inconvenience and a major obstacle.
You promise as hard as you can that what is true for the Man in Row 15 will not be true for Isabel.