His sobbing could be heard only faintly amid the din of conversation and beeping digital devices that contributed to the on board cacophony.
He was a tall, dark haired man, probably in his late 20s. There wasn’t much that was particularly noticeable about him: the T-shirt, shorts, flip flops, wristwatch all were standard issue.
In other words, there were no external signs that this young man’s behavior might not conform with the expectations of public behavior and decorum in our society.
And yet, here he was, on a flight halfway between Phoenix and Albuquerque, faced turned downward and towards the window, sobbing.
Rarely have I seen, if ever, a man sob that way, especially not in public.
It was the kind of body shaking that was more like that of a howling, wounded animal than of a human, perhaps more like a woman in labor than what sexist and outdated cultural norms demand of men.
He convulsed and shook, and tears rolled down his face.
And all of this he did, with minimal sound. It was almost eerie how quiet it all was, except for the muffled noises as he seemed to fight between his own need to sob, and knowing what public expectations demanded of him as a man.
My head was buried, ironically, in Huston Smith’s Why Religion Matters, part of my intention to fight against the tendency so prevalent in our world to stay at the surface of life and thought exacerbated by the ubiquity of technology. I was longing and hungry for more time to be spent in the depth and richness of deep contemplation underneath the realm of our ordinary diurnal tasks, where meaning is made, and this book was simply one of many such oft-foiled attempts.
Huston, one of the greatest religious scholars of the 20th century, writes about how a pseudo-scientific understanding of the world (what he calls scientism) has ripped away our common sense and traditional ways of knowing about things that are not proven by science in double-blind trials. Again and again, he writes about the realm of meaning that is valid and deeply worthy of respect, and which is all too often dismissed as not being factually based. A bias as crippling as the biases which Galileo and Copernicus had to face, too.
I was captivated by the depth of the book and so grateful I had escaped the surly bonds of social media for long enough to actually read this way again.
And here I faced the struggle that I find gets the better of me and many of us all too often: to say something to the young man sitting just a few inches away, or to keep my head buried in the book in fear of what might happen if I do?
The reality is that, in so many ways, our common experiences of compassion and tenderness towards those who are suffering are radically limited to safe spaces where we have permission to be with people in sometimes intimate ways. I make up that hundreds of years ago, if you saw someone sobbing right next to you in the orchards where you were picking apples or on the farm where you were milking cows, you wouldn’t think of not reaching out in compassion. That the imperative of being civilized, respectful and always decorous, actually prevents us from exercising our natural impulse to authentically connect with and be with those who are hurting.
I contemplated the dilemma in front of me: reach out to my brother or respect the rules of modern society which value privacy and individualism far more than they value connection, and risk making it worse for him and, potentially, me.
Eventually the impulse to care for another human being got the better of me and I had to say something.
What the hell could I possibly say to this man I didn’t know in a public place whose body language clearly seemed to signal that he, like a wounded animal, wanted to be left alone?
With whatever courage I could muster, I decided to wait for a pause in his sobs when he finally had to look in my direction. After several minutes, with red eyes and a splotchy face, he glanced up.
And I heard this come out of my mouth:
“Do you want to talk?”
He nodded no, silently, but his eyes spoke of gratitude
He put the palm of his hand to his chest in that well-recognized gesture of being touched emotionally, and mouthed, “Thank you”.
I nodded, as if to say, OK, and went back to my book.
Here it was, two perfect strangers in a public space, having a deeply authentic and private moment.
I had no idea why he was sobbing and noticed my analytical mind trying to find reasons why:
Had his girlfriend broken up with him?
Was he on his way to his father’s funeral?
Did he lose his job?
But none of that actually mattered.
What mattered was that this human, an American male no less, sitting in seat 8A, was hurting amidst dozens of other people. And he was courageous enough to be showing it.
How many others on that flight though were holding their pain to themselves?
Holding on to the idea that, in our culture, it is weakness to show emotion or to need others, medicating themselves with everything from food to obsessive social media, prescription drugs to sex?
I had no answers only more questions as my eyes went back to my book.
But over the past month of travels on more planes than I can count - from Oslo and Prague, Paris to London - I’ve been noticing more and more how much harder it is becoming for us to authentically connect. And how especially tough that must be for men, who still have even less social permission to publicly express emotion and vulnerability than do women.
We look down, get on our devices and check out of communal spaces as soon as possible. And then we wonder why we feel lonely, disconnected and frazzled.
Instead we could take a risk to look up, to each other and to what lies within us.
The yearning to authentically connect with others is as common in Paris and Papua New Guinea as it is in Poughkeepsie and Pasadena. And for those of us living in the undemocratically elected Reign of Technology, leaning into a mindful and authentically meaningful life takes great intentionality and care.
It also takes a community to remind us of its value and necessity.
And it takes a willingness to make ourselves vulnerable to those across the aisle - whether on an airplane or in the halls of power - to make us feel human.
I don’t know about you, but I’m going to keep trying. Even if it does get a bit turbulent at times.
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