In the Same Boat … in the Airport

June 12, 2017

By Sister Eileen Dooling, executive director, Mercy by the Sea Retreat and Conference Center

Photo of an airport with a large window.Recently I attended a meeting of the leaders of Mercy retreat houses in the United States where the conversation focused on what people need today and how Mercy retreat houses can fill those needs. Everyone spoke deeply about the good people who show up at our doors looking for something— perhaps silence, a reconnection with themselves or God, or a trained and listening ear. I was inspired by the conversation and realized I was not alone in this unique ministry. We agreed to collaborate and cooperate with one another for the common good, to share our ideas and knowledge and to continue to work together.

Feeling rather upbeat, I left the meeting to catch an early afternoon flight from St. Louis, Missouri, to Detroit, Michigan, with a connection to Hartford, Connecticut. Because the plane was late leaving St. Louis, I missed my connection (sound familiar?) but was re-booked on a late afternoon flight instead. As so often happens in air travel, that flight was also delayed, and so we waited and waited. At 11:30 p.m., the flight cancellation was announced, and I made a mad dash (well, not really so much a mad dash as a slow walk) to the Help Desk where one agent was re-booking passengers from several cancelled flights.

It wasn’t until 2:30 a.m. when I was finally rebooked and could settle in to my little space on the terminal floor where, with hundreds of other travelers, I tried in vain to sleep. My rebooked flight was not scheduled to leave until late that evening, but a standby seat on a 12:30 p.m. flight opened and—by some divine intervention?—I was awarded that seat.  

Now why do I tell you this story? Flight delays and cancellations are neither new nor unusual, but I was surprised at how quickly my delight with the meeting was transformed into anger at the airline for not planning better. The combination of lack of sleep and standing in line after line for so many hours did not help my disposition.

But my real reflection was on how people supported each other. After so many hours together, a little community formed where people alerted each other to gate changes, watched each other’s luggage, purchased water or food for one another. How much those little kindnesses were appreciated!

The usual protections we employ when travelling disappeared. We did not know each other’s names, stories or histories. We only knew that we were brought together in a challenging situation, were dealing with the same frustrations and were in need of kindness and patience—and a flight home. Indeed, we were at the airport, in the same boat!

Occasionally I still think of my fellow travelers and am grateful to them for reaching out to me. I hope in some way I returned their kindness. An airline glitch brought us together in an unpleasant and exhausting experience, but the memory of kindheartedness, decency and compassion is what endures.

In a short period of time, I participated in a meeting about collaboration and cooperation for the common good. A few hours later I experienced a community of caring and kindness among strangers. What would our world be like if collaboration and cooperation overcame competition and the need to be right? And what if our suspicion of the stranger was transformed into overt kindness for one other? What if we moved beyond tolerance of others and looked for the goodness in the stranger and the opportunities to make life better for us all?

What if? Why not?

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