By Emily Erickson
If you’re leery of something radical, stop reading. If you’re set in a stagnant process of thought, stop reading. If you’re unable to experience objectivity, stop reading.
However, if you are ready to engage in a productive (albeit flowery) thought experiment, then please, carry on.
* * *
You’re sitting in an airplane seat, feeling your skin stick to the leather underneath your legs. As the other passengers file in, you take note of each of them, seeing every person’s unique expression and disposition.
One man is somber, the corners of his mouth turned down. You can’t quite decipher if it’s from being travel weary or if a sadness he is carrying is spilling onto his face. He is holding the hand of a small child, eyes swiveling in both the wonder and apprehension of his first flight.
Another woman with bright eyes files in next. Flailing her arms and smiling, she turns around to face her travel companion, excitedly jabbering about their plans upon landing.
Listening to her words you hear, “We’ll get an Uber to the resort and drop our bags before …” until the sound of her voice melts into the jumbled mix of conversations from each chattering passenger around you. You close your eyes and soak up everyone’s voices, everyone’s stories, everyone’s experiences, and suddenly realize something profound.
You are so small. And your life is but one tiny thread in the magnificent tapestry that is the world.
If you’ve ever been on a plane soaring high above the patchwork of towns and cities sprawling below, with lined cars like ants making their way to their respective pinprick homes, this concept of our personal smallness isn’t that radical. From the sky, it’s easy to see just how many lives exist in which we play no part.
The radicalness, however, lies in what we do with that understanding.
We tend to think of ourselves and our problems as being monumental. The thing is, so does everyone else. But when we understand our peers and their lives as having the same sized thread as ours, with each person facing unique struggles, problems, triumphs, and fears equally monumental to them, we can experience true empathy and strive for genuine kindness.
A prayer from the Native Ute tribe asks, “Earth, teach me humility, as blossoms are humble with beginning. Earth, teach me caring, as mothers nurture their young. Earth teach me limitation, as the ant that crawls on the ground. Earth, teach me to forget myself, as the melted snow forgets its life. And Earth, teach me to remember kindness, as dry fields weep with the rain.”
In recognizing that our neighbors look just as small as we do from the plane soaring 10,000 feet above, we find humility. In realizing the problems that feel so big to us are no bigger than those of the people’s around us, we discover limitation. In understanding each person is the culmination of their past experiences and their current battles, leading their lives the best they can with the tools to which they have access, we can act from kindness.
Because if people wore their challenges like name tags, how much harder would it be to judge their actions, or react negatively to their plight? Striving to live with empathy and acting from kindness will so rarely lead us astray.
Furthermore, in choosing to understand others like we want to be understood, we get to reap the confidence and self-esteem that comes from being our best selves. When we show respect to another person, regardless of their deservedness at the surface, we get to feel good about our actions and take pride in our behavior. Because altruism isn’t necessary. But humanity is.
* * *
The engines of the plane rumble, firing themselves into life. The lines on the runway begin to blur from individual stripes to long yellow lines speeding by. Looking out the window, you watch as the buildings below shrink into Lego pieces, and the people within them mere specs of dust. Smiling at all of the stories you’ll never hear and the lives you’ll never touch, you pull the plastic blind closed, and drift quietly to sleep.