Airplane Lessons: An Exercise in Loving my Neighbor

A few years ago I boarded an airplane for a 12+ hour flight. After settling into my (middle) seat, the passenger in the aisle seat next to me arrived and started settling in herself. Like most international travelers, she was armed with a few books, a few electronic gadgets, a bag of airport lunch, a water bottle, a purse, a carry-on bag, etc. She never looked at me or spoke to me, but she did deposit the entire pile of carry-on loot into my lap without a word of explanation or request for help.I was flabbergasted, to say the least.

But, I know how hard it can be to settle into these tiny spaces; she’ll take these things from me in a second, I figured. I won’t be holding them forever. I can be a good neighbor.

She settled in. Sat down. Seat belts. Flips through the airplane magazines. Minutes pass. Then she takes from my arms a cell phone — and makes a call. A long call. Talks on the phone until we have to “please turn off all electronic equipment for take off” and I’m still holding all her stuff.

At this point, I’ve moved from flabbergasted to flummoxed, and incredibly irritated. What is this nut-case-of-a-fellow-passenger thinking?!?

It occurred to me then that this is the scenario Jesus is always describing. The one where I’m supposed to walk the extra mile; where I’m supposed to love my enemies; where I’m supposed to turn the other cheek, give my second jacket to the person who stole my first one; where I’m supposed to be humble, and giving, and patient instead of seeking something for myself, seeking comfort, seeking my rights, seeking a good position. The one where I am to give shelter to those who need it, food and water to those without it, comfort for those who seek it. No matter how undeserving or undesirable the needy person may be, because when I do these things, I’m really doing it to him. As though that person were Jesus.

He was right — it’s easy to do this for my friends who will probably do the same for me. But it’s really hard to do this for a perfect stranger who really seems to be taking advantage of my patience for no compelling reason.

But hey — how about that? Taking advantage of me? Aren’t I supposed to have good boundaries? Not let people walk all over me? This is the place where I go around in circles. How do you love people as though they were Jesus, without becoming an unhealthy doormat?

The answer struck me then in a place deeper than words: if this lady sitting next to me really were Jesus, I would be more than happy to hold his/her bags for 15 minutes — or 15 hours. I would never have to ask myself if I was being manipulated because the change that matters is not in her behavior or intent, but in my own heart. If she really was Jesus, I would spend those 15 minutes or 15 hours blessed beyond belief that I had this opportunity to give, to serve, to be near him.

Being manipulated or taken advantage of comes not because of who she is, but who I see her to be. If I believe that holding her books and loving her gives me an opportunity to directly and physically love and serve Jesus, then she no longer has the power to hurt me in any way. I have already chosen to give freely, joyfully — and I’m getting much more in return than was “taken” from me.

He was right about that too.

She did eventually take her stuff back. Never did speak to me, or look at me. But this taught me something, without words, that a book or sermon or discussion could never have done. Loving the (to my eyes) unlovable as though they were Jesus.

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My aim is to awaken myself and others to the creative, redemptive work of God in this present moment. I am striving to see beauty, learning to expand my perspective, praying to keep my eyes and heart open.

Connect with Catherine at www.catherinemcniel.com.

 


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