Thursday, January 24, 2013

Empathy at the airport

Psalm 27:7-8, 13-14 (NIV)

Hear my voice when I call, Lord;
   be merciful to me and answer me.
My heart says of you, “Seek his face!”
   Your face, Lord, I will seek.

I remain confident of this:
   I will see the goodness of the Lord
   in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord;
   be strong and take heart
   and wait for the Lord.
First things first, the flight took off as scheduled today. It was a little weird, after not having flown since July, to go through the exact same airport routine two consecutive mornings. All of the scenery was exactly the same, but all the players were different. There’s two guys seated right near us who say they were booked on yesterday’s canceled flight, but otherwise it looks to be full of people blissfully unaware of our struggles from Wednesday.

Among the new characters was a family we encountered on the train from the remote parking lot to the terminals. It was a mother traveling with her three young daughters. The mom looked to be a few years older than me, though her oldest daughter was easily a few years younger than Jack. The youngest was in a stroller but perhaps older than Charlie. Regardless, any time I see a parent herding around three children in my kids’ peer group, I’m immediately sympathetic.

As the train approached terminal two, the mother reminded her charges to stay close to her at all times, especially in the security line. As the doors opened, she struggled a bit with her rolling back and the youngest girl’s umbrella stroller. She ended up pushing the stroller with one hand — much harder than it looks with that model — and toting the bag with the other. I wondered why she didn’t put the oldest girl in charge of one or the other, then quickly considered if my kids could have been entrusted to do the same.

We were headed to terminal one, so as much as I felt pulled to help this woman get where she was going, I stayed on the train. I don’t know what happened when they got to the narrow escalators, but I have seen what happens with my kids on wide escalators during slow hours at a shopping mall, and it’s less than ideal. And we didn’t have a wheeled bag or a stroller.

Nor do I know how they managed while sending each child through the metal detector or body scanner, how the girls behaved while waiting at the gate, if they sat quietly on the plane. It’s likely she’d bought seats for just the older girls so all four of them were in the same row with the youngest taking up residence on someone’s lap. Envisioning myself sitting between Jack and Max (to keep the slapping and poking to a minimum) while also wrangling Charlie led me to the conclusion this family I observed was most likely flying out of extreme necessity and not casual desire.

I know millions of people fly every day, including thousands of children. The mother I observed clearly knew her way around an airport and had steeled herself with the resolve needed to soldier ahead, guarding her girls and getting to Point B as smoothly as possible. She did not appear in need of empathy, from me or anyone else. But still I found myself wanting to offer some sort of olive branch, even a simple sign of courtesy. When I’m traveling without my family, there is no “knowing glance” that conveys the message “I have three kids about their age and I’m hoping your day goes well. By the way, is there anything I can do for you in the four minutes we’re breathing the same air in this little train car?”

And would she have wanted to hear the message? I’ve gotten more than my share of grocery store glances that scream, “Boy, do you have your hands full!” — and that’s just form the kind souls who don’t have the audacity to come right out and say so. They almost always have a friendly tone (even if to cover their inner voice screaming: “Three children? Are you crazy?”), but I wonder how my boys might feel if they realize they are the subjects of the inquiry?

This is a scenario where Jack’s tendency to be oblivious to his surroundings is beneficial. Max, however, who soaks up absolutely every external stimulus he encounters, might not be too far away from asking, “Dad, why did that lady ask you if your hands are full? You’re not carrying anything.” I can answer him honestly, and I can think of several questions I’m much less like him to ask based on grocery store observances. But still I’d prefer my kids not get the message that strangers perceive them to be a burden.

I read the Psalm excerpts last night as I prepared to write on the plane, and I have the same question then as I do now: what does it mean to seek the Lord’s face? I can answer in the larger sense, but on a day-to-day level, how does that pursuit manifest itself in my personality and approach to life? When I’m going through the motion of getting on an airplane, is there something I can or should be doing to be actively seeking God in that moment?

I did not pray for that family on the train at the time we were together, though I think I will now. I tried my best to be polite and courteous to those I encountered this morning, though any human is capable of having good manners and does not need to have a deep and abiding faith at the root of those outward appearances. And really, I don’t feel entirely comfortable forcing matters of faith into every possible situation. I could have said “God bless you” to the lady who made my tea at Starbucks, but that borders on trite. A polite “thank you” serves the same essential purpose.

So while I’ve not explored fully at this moment, I’ve given myself something to consider going forward: how and when can I seek God, and how do I teach my children to do the same? We can have confidence in God, can wait patiently to see God’s goodness come to the land of the living. And we can find opportunities to pursue God’s will for us in every setting. It won’t happen by accident, but neither is there an obvious map to lead the way.

A prayer for January 24:

Lord, thank you for hearing my voice. Thank you for your mercies, your love and your grace. As I explore all the ways I seek to be closer to you, it is comforting to know I am not chasing you but simply tying to meet you where you are. I am in pursuit, but you never change, always caring, always loving, always ready to hear a prayer. Your goodness never fades, your blessings continue despite my sins. Thank you for your forgiveness. Amen.

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