Chicago O’Hare Airport is busy. I’m waiting patiently for my flight, happily absorbed in my book and relaxing after three interactive days studying resiliency. It will prove fortuitous.
I glance up as a group of weary travelers begins to trickle into the gate area, obviously at the far, far end of an awfully long day. I glean from snippets of conversation that they are returning from an extended visit in The Netherlands. Chicago appears to be the last leg of their trip to wherever home may be, and I suspect home’s looking like an awesome place to be right about now.
Three members land in seats across from me – an older woman, quiet and reserved, with a doughy, fairly effeminate man whose manner and tone come across as demanding, loud, and petulant. A younger woman with him is crabby, complaining to the world about being searched. Twice.
About five minutes later, two younger family members roll up in their custom-made wheelchairs, followed a scant minute later by a rangy woman with long, blonde hair, two huge duffle bags slung over her shoulders and exhaustion painted across her face. She scans the area for a seat and slams one bag down on the floor next to me. The other joins it with a unceremonious thud. She looks up as a quiet but tightly coiled man with shaggy steel gray hair arrives, pushing a wheelchair bearing an older gentleman with cane and tremor.
Her companions safely there, the blonde has obviously had enough. She strides over to the doughy man in a way that sets my fight or flight response tingling. I can only imagine what her target feels.
“Why didn’t you wait for us,” she says sharply … and loudly. Very loudly. “We’ve been lugging these bags and shepherding three people through everything! Why didn’t you stay to help?”
Her equally rangy companion, having carefully seated his elderly charge, turns to the younger, crabby woman. “You bitch! You are so self-centered, thinking only of yourself.” She doesn’t look up, but the doughy man slings his own arrow, “Don’t you call her a bitch!”
The seating area electrifies and stills, yet no one dares acknowledge the exchange. The airline attendant’s paperwork obviously demands his rapt attention, and I’m not sure he’s even breathing as he pretends to work. I cringe, waiting for fists. But the tempest isn’t destined to strengthen today, apparently. For seconds that seem like hours, the couple war within themselves, then turn back to the forgotten duffles.
There are always multiple sides to a story, and it’s especially hard to figure it out when you’re sitting there looking in through a window. But I’m struck by how much pain now hangs in the air. Oh, the pain we cause others when we aren’t mindful!
From my window perch, it appears that the doughy man and his companion were obviously not mindful when they left their father and the other sibling to take care of everything, caught up in their own drama. And the rangy couple was certainly not mindful when they arrived in a maelstrom of anger, unable to stop their darts. The older family members and their wheelchair-bound grandchildren (or children) were surely not mindful when they chose to stay silent, and I wonder if they feel responsible for the storm. As a result, they all suffer – as do those of us sharing this space; we can’t help but sustain some collateral damage.
For the moment, my book lies forgotten on my lap. I muse about this burgeoning awareness. We so often inflict anger, frustration, and pent-up emotions not only on others but on ourselves, although that’s merely a choice we make; we don’t have to do that.
My heart aches for this entire family. It must be a monumental task, shepherding three people who require immense help through check-in, through security, through customs, from one plane to another, to the gate, and finally, hopefully, home. Frustration has quite obviously dogged this family’s journey.
What’s left? The patriarch and matriarch, whose voices still and whose gaze goes anywhere but at another human. The doughy man’s companion, who stalks two rows away and sulks. The blonde daughter – I’ve decided she’s a daughter – and her partner who sink down to the floor with so much held inside. The young man and woman bound to wheelchairs stare out the window in silence. What a sad way to end a trip.
Here I sit, fresh from a session on resiliency, and I wonder what might help them weather this moment, to cultivate self-awareness and mindfulness.
Here I sit, ready to go off on another jaunt in a few short weeks to learn about calling the circle and returning to the wisdom and mindfulness of indigenous people; to learn how to shepherd a different way, by reaching out and engaging, encouraging deep listening, facilitating conversation and strengthening relationship.
Here I sit, hoping to discover the fine art of fostering listening without judgment and rancor, without anger – or maybe with anger but not without compassion to temper it.
Here I sit, wishing I could help them speak, and listen, and find common ground and make collaborative choices with heart and depth and meaning.
I watch as the group sits alone in its pain: most poignant to me is the couple sitting on the floor, apparently preferring its hardness to the hardness of relationship in this moment.
I let a few minutes pass, then lean over to the blonde woman and offer her my chair.
“No,” she says. “I just need the distance. I need to chill.”
I nod. “I get that,” I say. Glancing up, I notice the attendant watching. We share a smile, and I return to my book on Circles.
Later, as I am walking off the plane, I pass them and catch the blonde woman’s eye. She smiles slightly and nods. I’d like to think that time, and the opportunity to decompress, and perhaps, just perhaps, a gesture of kindness and understanding from a stranger, might have helped that family circle begin to repair itself. And I am grateful for that possibility.