Why you should talk to strangers
An unexpected seatmate shifts a frequent flier’s perspective.
Frequent fliers live by many rules. One of the biggies: Never talk to seatmates. Put on your headphones, get immersed in reading, or close your eyes. Given that I am prone to motion sickness, I prefer to spend as much of a flight asleep as possible, so it works out. Also, mentioning motion sickness deters chatty neighbors.
In the 1990s I regularly flew 100,000 miles or so a year on United Airlines. I worked for an investment bank in San Francisco, and most of our clients were based in Boston and New York. I worked long hours at a stressful job for a boss best described as petty.
I don’t even remember where I was flying from or flying to, but one evening I got on a plane and took my seat. I was angry about something that had happened with my boss. And the woman next to me decided to start a conversation. “You seem upset,” she said.
Instead of grabbing the airsickness bag to ward her off, I decided to answer. “Yeah,” I said. “My boss is a jerk.”
She didn’t ask me why I was upset. Instead she asked me what it felt like to be upset. I had never thought about emotions that way and was intrigued.
She started telling me about a book she was reading, Everyday Zen by Charlotte Joko Beck. Beck was a Buddhist teacher who adapted Zen principles for modern life. We don’t chop wood and carry water; we drive on freeways and wash dishes, she said. Her book was about how meditation could help us see through the illusions that make us upset. Focus on the breath, identify every thought that pops into your head about your stupid boss, and pretty soon you realize that your anger at your work situation is small relative to the vastness of the world and that it is keeping you from doing what matters. Which may be as small—but as important—as washing dishes.
That conversation got me through the flight. My seatmate calmed me down and made me realize that I was not stuck thinking about office drama all the time. First chance I had, I went to a bookstore and bought a copy of Beck’s book.
As I read it I realized that I had already learned to meditate in Catholic school when we learned to say the rosary. Although often couched in superstition—I was taught that saying the rosary daily would guarantee an easy death, or maybe that was attending Mass on the first Friday of every month—the rosary is actually a way of getting beyond our ruminations to focus on what really matters. This shift in perspective gave me a new way of thinking about prayer and dealing with stress.
I still fly, although not as much as I once did, and I still avoid talking to my seatmates. But one time I answered, and it made a big difference in my life.
This essay is part of a series of reflections on conversations that left an impact on the authors’ lives. You can read the rest of the essays here. The collection also appears in the January 2019 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 84, No. 1, pp.28–33).