March 5, 2022
Once upon a time, I was on a flight from Mexico to the US. I had my earbuds in and was doing a pretty good job of tuning out airplane life. But then I caught wind of a commotion happening behind me.
I took my earbuds out and pieced together that someone on the plane had gotten sick. It was a young woman. She was sitting in the row behind me. It didn't seem to be anything serious. But she had thrown up. And she had apparently been doing so for a long time. She seemed somewhat unbothered by this. Which at first made me think, “Good for her. If that were me, I'd already be lost in sea of self-loathing.”
The more blasé she got, the more annoyed her seatmates got. The smell, they said. It was too much. They wanted new seats. I will never forget the one man saying, "The smell is just ravenous." Because it's the wrong word. But also, is it?
They eventually got their new seats and the woman had the row to herself.
So I put my earbuds back in. Then, a flight attendant appeared. She was looking at me and speaking. So I took my earbuds out again. She said, "A passenger behind you got sick, and some of it's in your hair."
And then I said something that I would edit now if I could. Because, if there's vomit on the back of my head, I thought, that's probably going to be difficult to locate and clean off properly. So I asked her if she could clean it off for me. Me. A grown man. That poor woman. I asked politely. And she responded politely. But I think my request and her compliance demeaned and demoralized us both. And next time someone pukes in my hair on a plane, I’ll know to man up and clean it off myself.
Apparently, this young woman had friends, or at least one other friend, seated elsewhere on the plane. One of them came to sit with her partway through the flight to make sure she was okay.
Up to that point, I'd felt bad for the woman. I'd assumed that she was maybe just playing it cool on the outside, while on the inside she was secretly swimming in the same sea of self-loathing I’d have been. That poor woman. But then, when her friend arrived, she got really talkative. And really loud. And really annoying. She started talking about her coworkers who don't like her. She shared a story about how one of them had said something rude to her, and she'd responded (in her head only, I believe) with something very close to, "I was like, um, like, excuse me, but, like, you need to, like, understand that, like, I'm, like, an awesome person."
My seatmates cringed. I cringed. A little breeze blew across my brow as the whole plane cringed.
Because the shamelessness it takes to so loudly and confidently say something like that very shortly after puking your seatmates away is simply too forceful to dodge. Ravenous, even.
I'm certainly not saying that shaming her would have been an appropriate response. But her apparent total absence of shame was no more appropriate.
We're not all just automatically awesome no matter what. My best guess is that maybe a hundred people or so in all of human history were born awesome. The rest of us need to go through the whole range of human experience to rise through the ranks from selfish idiots shitting themselves to decent people who use toilets. A slightly smaller number will make it all the way to good and great people. And an even smaller number will be awarded black belts for their awesomeness. And they will probably not get it immediately after puking out their giant hangover and fruit smoothie on a flight home from Cancun.
That was roughly seven years ago, but I still think about that woman a lot. I don't think she's an awful human being, and I'm not writing this to ridicule her. In fact, I've come all the way back around to feeling bad for her. Feeling bad for her because of what happened after she puked. Feeling bad for the version of her that got frozen in my mind on that plane, I mean. Because chances are she's grown since then, and she now feels shame when it's appropriate. And that would mean that she now gets to feel the slight but vital sting that the rest of us do when we look in the rearview at the less than fully formed people we used to be. And if we're living approximately right, that should include the people that we were just yesterday. We can all probably do a little better than that.
I'm not saying that we should keep our eyes on our memories of the road traveled for long. Just long enough to make sure that we're still going forward, or still going the right way, rather.
It seems to me that a lot of people are trying to avoid pain and suffering. And that they feel we must protect the young from pain and suffering. The idea seems to be that this will make a world of happier and kinder humans. But I think that's incorrect. I think it makes humans who don't know how to deal with pain and suffering and adversity. And I think humans who don't know how to deal with pain and suffering and adversity will not know how to deal with life.
They will feel anxious and threatened by the many wonderful things in this world that arrive to challenge them and make them grow. They will begin to see mere speech and questions and ideas that differ from their own as inherently wrong, acts of violence, even, impossible to meet with kindness. Impractical to meet with peace, love, and understanding. They will even begin to see their own internal questions and conflicts this way. Because such things might challenge their otherwise indisputable self-righteousness and awesomeness, and they might have to feel a little less awesome when, say, puking on a plane.
And what an injustice that would be. To have to feel something uncomfortable but real. To have to do it over and over again. Day after day. To have to keep experiencing life fully. To have to keep outgrowing ourselves. To have to keep losing ourselves to the effort of loving other people. And to have to keep finding ways to love them, even after their white belts in awesomeness have been taken away. Yeah. What an injustice. Or maybe it’s the whole point.