This morning I flew home after delivering an intensive three-day workshop in the Portland, Oregon area. During my flight, I had an experience I feel compelled to share. I’m a huge Southwest advocate and any chance I get to fly Southwest, I take it. Today was one of those days. If you know anything about the Southwest boarding process, you know that it’s a first-come first-seated system; now having been on as many of these flights as I have at this point, I’ve gotten pretty good at finding subtle ways to create a seating arrangement I want. The flight was getting pretty full, and as the emergency exit rows had filled up before I could sit down, I picked an aisle seat towards the front of the plane (I like to have room to stretch out my legs if need-be, and I hate the rigamarole of moving people around if I’m on the inside and I need to use the lavatories). We had finally gotten the boarding trickle down to where it seemed like I had once again been victorious: my row had no middle passenger — in fact, a quick glance back confirmed that we were the only row in the plane with such a luxury! As the flight attendant picked up the radio and began her, “We need everyone in their seats..” speech, I made eye contact with my sole row-mate and we both gave a triumphant smile and nod.
As I looked back to the flight attendant who was now mid-monologue, I noticed something that quickly stripped my face of its self-righteous grin: a young woman had just walked on board with a large carry-on and was talking to the flight attendant. Damn it. I was so close! Oh well, hopefully at least she’s qui — My internal narration was interrupted by a loud series of shrieking yelps shooting outward from within the carry-on. Oooooooh, noooooooooo. It was like a slow motion scene in a movie where the main characters realize they’ve just walked into a trap. I looked over to my row-mate and I could see that she was clearly having the same thoughts I was from the horrified look on her face. The second flight attendant pointed a sinister finger directing the woman to our row, and I could see that this would be a long flight.
It was at this moment, however, as the young woman’s eyes looked to our row that I could see that the woman had been crying. And not just a quick, “TSA kept me so long I had to run and I was afraid I would miss this flight” kind of cry. If you’ve ever been with someone when they’ve received some core-shaking news like, “I can’t marry you, I’m in love with someone else,” or “I’m sorry, it’s terminal,” you’ve seen these eyes before. When someone has that look, you can just see that they’re mentally swimming through the experiences that follow next, trying their hardest to not emotionally erupt again in front of complete strangers. It’s a look of disbelief that you still have to go through regular everyday tasks after an experience like that. It’s a look of isolation. When I saw this, I immediately self-shamed and stood up to help her w/ her bags as she approached and nestled her doggie travel case under the seat in front of her.
You know that feeling you get when you’re in a situation and you have zero idea how to act? That’s basically where I was at for the first 5 minutes of the flight. It was that weird space where you want to let the other person that you care and you’re here for them, but you also don’t want them to be self-conscious or feel weird. After all, maybe they just want to think about literally ANYTHING ELSE than that thing, so it would be best to not even bring it up. So, with no clue what to do, I did what was likely worst response and just awkwardly sat there fidgeting with my phone as she stared directly at her precious, barking cargo.
There was clearly a story there, and the dog played a big role. Every yelp from the tiny puppy almost brought her to tears, like a mom at the supermarket who’s just trying to hold it together after the worst day ever while her kids are mercilessly knocking things over. But whenever she was able to comfort it, she seemed a little more complete. In an effort to open up the lines of communication, a couple of minutes in I asked, “What kind of dog is it?”
“It’s a Labradoodle,” she replied softly, not even looking up. Message received. This was a “let it be” situation. She had been sniffling off and on for that first five minutes, but when she finally pulled the classic t-shirt as a tear squeegee move I decided to make one more gesture. I reached into my bag and grabbed my travel packet of Kleenex, and subtly handed them to her. “Just in case,” I whispered. She smiled.
After that interaction, we didn’t speak the rest of the two-hour flight back home. I left my right earbud out of my ear to signify I was listening if she decided she wanted to talk, and even though she had to use a couple more of those tissues during that span, she never spoke. As we begin to deplane back in Vegas, I had a nagging feeling that I hadn’t done enough. In my mind, this person had likely just gone through something that made her feel separate from every other human on this planet. So after I got to the top of the ramp near the gate, I stopped and waited.
As she approached, I realized that I had no idea what I was going to say. I was back to the feeling from the beginning of the flight. But at this point, if I stayed there waiting, made eye contact, and then just stood there looking goofy and possibly creepy as she walked by, it would’ve had the exact opposite effect I intended. So, I decided to do something that my friend Stephen Shedletzky is amazing at — just making a bold, honest statement. As she made eye contact I said, “Hey. So, I know that this may seem weird, and please feel free to walk away if it is, but…would a hug be a good thing for you right now?”
She paused, clearly taken aback. “Uhh…”
Great. She thinks I’m a creeper. This is exactly why I should nev —
“…actually, yeah. That would be nice.” She set down her puppy crate and brought it in for the real thing.
Now anyone who has ever hugged me knows that I don’t do “dainty” hugs. Couple that with the fact that I’ve got long arms and a pretty broad chest — my hug game is strong. At first, I think she just expected a typical stranger hug. She went through the “hugging motions.” But After a couple seconds, there was the moment. If you’ve ever had a person just let go and break the walls down during a hug, you know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s where they momentarily relax their grip and then begin sobbing. Once they see that you’re not scared away, they fully lean in and just let everything go. Their grip becomes tighter and you become the thing that makes it ok to be vulnerable. We stood there for probably 30 or 40 seconds in silence as she wept into my chest.
Then, just like that, she was done. She let go and looked up, wiping her eyes and softly uttered, “Thank you.” I smiled, nodded, and that was it. She picked up her puppy and rushed away.
I share this story because as I walked towards baggage claim, I reflected on something that had happened during the workshop that week where I was debriefing with a participant on some themes I’d noticed in stories she’d shared during an Individual Why Discovery round. One of the things that popped up for me was that little moments meant a lot to her. She had explicitly called out that we all have the power to change someone’s life, and you often don’t even know it. In that moment on the plane, I felt the moment manifest. My gut told me to help someone, even though the easy thing to do would’ve been to just pop in my earbuds and avoid putting myself out there. Realistically, I could’ve justified that I would’ve had a net-zero impact on her situation by staying out of it. But as a result of doing what I felt was right, sourcing myself from a place of service to others, my day was improved and I believe hers was as well. Had she not been allowed that moment of being human during our hug, she would’ve carried the emotional build-up with her all day until it broke through at a likely inopportune time, making her feel even more isolated than before.
Each of us has the potential to make a positive impact on people on a daily basis. The way you treat someone can either make them feel like they’re not alone or feel even more alone. It doesn’t need to be anything like my experience. It may just look like something as simple as saying, “Bless you” after a stranger sneezes, holding a door for them, or maybe even just giving a stranger a simple smile. If you show up with an intent of helping people feel like they’re not alone — even though it may force you out of your comfort zone, like it did for me — I find that it’s rewarding for both parties involved. So, I encourage you to take a chance today, tomorrow, or beyond to see if there’s a moment you can leverage that will make someone else’s day :)