The opportunity to “do good today” is often wrapped in unexpected circumstances. This story is about a conversation I overheard between a business man and a challenged, possibly troubled, teenager on a flight back from Knoxville. As the dialogue unfolded, I listened raptly, and even scribbled it in my notebook. Today I reread the conversation I documented 18 months ago, and was inspired to share it with you.
I was flying from Knoxville to Detroit, after attending the Social Slam, a social media conference founded by Mark Schaefer (click here to see his awesome blog – he’s a true expert). I met Mark when we both spoke at a conference in Ireland. However, I digress.
We were sitting on the tarmac waiting to take off. The conversation one row behind me began normally enough. I heard the voice of a teenage boy speak to the person next to him. He spoke slowly, as if he had trouble selecting his words. He then shared that his mom lived in Flint, which is about 90 miles north of Detroit. I heard the murmur of a male voice respond; the person next to the teen was a man.
“I went to Kentucky on spring break,” said the young boy, laboriously pronouncing each word.
“Where?” asked the man.
“In the countryside.”
The man paused. “Well, the countryside is very pretty.”
The boy paused. “I was in a trailer park.”
A long silence ensued, as the implications of living in a trailer park were considered. Typically, it is housing selected by people who are of lesser means.
“It’s not so pretty when the trailer is a mess,” the boy added in a low voice.
The man asked a few questions that one might ask a teen, inquiring about school, friends. He received yes or no answers. Then it was the young man’s turn.
“Do you have any kids?”
“I have one girl.”
“Do you have any more kids?”
“Well, actually, we do have a baby on the way! It’s a boy.”
“Why is it taking so long?” asked the boy. The plane hadn’t moved for some time.
“We are probably waiting for clearance to take off.”
“Where did the lady go?”
“She’s sitting up front,” said the man, “I can see her strapped in so we will be leaving soon.”
“I don’t know if I can stay awake,” said the boy, as if it were cause for alarm.
“Well, why don’t you just go ahead and close your eyes?” replied the man in a soothing tone.
I wanted to peek over the back of my seat and tell the man that he was an angel, but I didn’t.
“There was a boy rushing me,” said the teen. “I don’t like to be rushed.”
“Nobody likes to be rushed.”
“My mom doesn’t like to be rushed, either.”
After a short pause, the boy asked where the man was flying to.
“Frankfurt,” said the man.
“It’s in Germany.”
“That’s far away!” cried the boy, full of concern.
“Yes, it is.”
“Is it in London?”
The man hesitated. “It’s near London.”
“Oh,” replied the boy, as if he was measuring how right or wrong he was. “London is far away.” The man murmured in agreement.
“My hair is a mess. My mom said so.”
After the slightest hesitation, the man said, “It looks pretty good to me.”
Then the engines roared and we were thrust back into our seats. During the flight it was too noisy to hear anything else they said. It gave me time for me to appreciate the kindness of the stranger behind me, and to remember that we all endure circumstances that cause us pain.
Human suffering is hard to see or hear. We often can’t tell from the outside how much pain someone is feeling on the inside. It’s too bad we don’t all have an Anguish Meter that prominently displays our internal state, or a red flashing Pain Beacon, alerting the world that we could use a kind word or gesture of encouragement.
When we landed and were “free to move about the cabin”, I grabbed my bag from the compartment above my seat. I glanced back at the boy. He looked to be about 15 years old, was dressed in a red plaid shirt and blue jeans, and was a little overweight. He had blond, disheveled hair with wavy bangs mostly covering his large blue eyes. He was staring out the window and twisting his hands anxiously.
I looked at the business man, held his gaze, and silently extended my right hand. He accepted my handshake, and we shared a fleeting smile. I didn’t say a word. I didn’t have to. I shifted my bag to my shoulder, turned, and walked off the plane.
I wonder how many self-leadership opportunities I’ve missed to “do good today” since I first heard that conversation 18 months ago. Dozens? Hundreds? I’m not great a injecting myself into situations unless the problem is clearly evident. And many social problems are not clearly evident.
I’ve been in a bit of a funk as I manage my new work schedule, a long power outage (more on that later), my work computer crashing, and having clients and colleagues in from Europe – all of those challenges overlapped in a period of five days. I didn’t eat well or get enough rest. I was griping about it to a friend. He replied, “Those are high-class problems to have.” Hmmm…
My call to action is to set some of my chaos aside (it never really goes away, does it?) and focus on recognizing the opportunity “to do good today” more clearly, like with 20/20 vision. I hope that by writing this, and recalling again how my heart was touched by the kindness of one stranger to another, maybe I can find that same seed of compassion in my heart. Maybe I can lean on it, leverage it, trust it, and act on it. I will try to do better.
Do you have a favorite “do good today” story that you’d like to share? Maybe someone was kind to you, or you to them?
Ideation ~ Strategic ~ Learner ~ Achiever ~ Individualization ~ Maximizer”