That’s the first word that comes to mind at the moment, to describe what it’s like. Riding the sky, on a craft that was surely never meant to leave the ground. Second place would have to go to the word jostling. Elbowing through the wind. Not the most graceful creature to have ever flown, but the largest in recent times, certainly.
Perched between heaven and earth. Bird-country.
Hurtling. Ears popping. Pressure building. Sky blurs past, mangled by whirring turbines; a never-ending cacophony of sound.
Men were never meant to sit here. To see the sunset from this angle. To look down at the clouds. This is the throne of nobler birds; the courtroom of angels. And yet here we are. Ever the intruders.
Tormented by the words of thirteen hours of sermons from the week’s conference, and by the book I just finished, it is hard to let the mind relax. Because here, hanging in the hands of mortality, I am forced to wonder about the souls that surround me. The lives. The stories, all woven out of memories and characters I will never know. On my flights, (four) I have had the (risky) privilege of sitting next to complete strangers (also four).
To begin, a woman named Linda was excited to be on her way to Venice, Italy.
I don’t know Linda. I know that she likes to paint. That she reads novels about the history of various diseases (conversations get weird above 10,000 feet). That she has seen the Lord of the Rings, and thinks that I (presumably all young people) should travel abroad. And here, heaving and hiccupping through the air at 500 mph, I met Linda and had an hour and a half to talk or not to talk. To rub souls with a stranger.
Next was Jack. Young. Snappily dressed. He had none of the enthusiasm to be heading off that I did. He was on his way to a business retreat. Nice shoes, nice glasses, exhausted looking eyes. Few words. He looked like he was in the opening scene of a Hallmark movie, where (hopefully) he would wind up completely happy by Christmas (just speculating).
Then, a week later, Daryl. Middle-aged. Talkative. Wealthy. A man who specialized in getting casinos running and resorts flowing. A man who likes to drink, gamble, and find a sunrise service come Easter to spend with his children.
Carrie. Quiet. Even forgettable, in her mannerisms. Polite. With her glasses and her concentrated gaze out the window, there does not seem to be much to her. Indeed, she is certainly less memorable than the handicapped boy who spent the whole flight kicking the back of my chair and chattering with the stewardess. At least he earned a few smiles.
As lives meet, as they collide and react and alter one another, as they flitter in and away, I wonder how people can actually know one another. I touched four lives, and all that remains to me now are the details.
Linda’s excitement. Her simple clothes. Jack’s tiredness. His shiny shoes and five-o’clock shadow. Daryl’s 10,000 unchecked emails. Carrie’s slightness, her forgettable character. The scar that was too big on her left hand. Doubtless that is all that will ever remain, and eventually those will fade as well. After all, my life was not changed by Linda, or by Jack, or Daryl or Carrie.
Four lives. All heading off in their own directions. For a few moments, we shared a row of seats. We shared a touch of souls, for an hour-and-a-half. If life is a river, then these four people were nothing more than a stone to rub against. Not enough to break the path, or divert it, not to dam it up and change it.
Every day, we encounter souls. Today, in the airport, I have encountered thousands. I have sat with and counted myself as one of these hundred odd passengers four times, always different. But I don’t know them. They don’t know me. Chances are that they never will know me, or see me again. Lives and stories and dreams, all crammed into these bodies, all quietly (or not quietly) sitting around me. Souls. Souls with flavor. Characters in stories that I will never read.
But what if we could?
I am reminded of Russian roulette. A revolving door. As I sat in the terminal, I knew that any of the people on these tired looking chairs could be my neighbor for the next hour or two. Not much time. Easy enough to avoid speaking, and simple enough to avoid being spoken to.
That is one option. And the other is to wonder.
Wonder about the story beside you. The state of that soul. Who is this person? For an hour and a half, I had a chance to see. And I’m not sure if I did. But I learned their names. And for a moment, I stepped into the water of their river, encountered the endless flow of their lives. I witnessed one chapter. Not even a chapter; a page. A scene in a bigger play, whose characters I don’t and can’t know. But for a moment, I did get to see them.
Every day, we are witnesses to the lives and the emotions of characters in a greater story, to see their scenes and their chapters and maybe glimpse their hardships, or their joys.
Our stories converge with theirs. And, for that one hour (or however long we have), we have a window not only into their lives, but an opportunity to let them see us. We have an hour to make an impression. To prove what we are, to reveal a glimpse of our character. Sometimes an hour can change a life. Rewrite the course of a river.
You have an opportunity every moment of every day to be that person. The person who, whether or not your name is remembered, can change a mood or a day, if not a life. The person who meets eyes and smiles. The person who lends yourself and spends yourself. The person who didn’t mind giving up the window seat, or letting someone get in front in line.
One hour. One moment. One footprint in a river that will probably forget it at soon as it arrives. Impressions will be made whether you know it or not, and you have a chance to make them work for you or against you. Whether you stand out or blend in, whether you talk like Daryl or stare out the window like Carrie, we are all mingling with other stories. We have a chance to read and be read. We have a chance to change or save a life every moment of every day.
Perhaps this will help only to remember that, in the midst of the great cacophony of human souls all around us, in the great mingling of their stories and rivers, we have power. The power of influence.
So whether you are a cheerful talker, or a silent window-starer, remember that no matter how much time you have, you have that much time to make an impression. An impression that lasts longer than scarred hands or expensive glasses or foreign diseases.
We’re all characters. Be a character worth reading about.
Step into a story. Be stepped into. Shape and be shaped.
And leave footprints.
Just a thought.