Friday, January 18, 2008

Where Selfishness Lives

Life has a funny way of showing us exactly what we need to see. I was reminded of this powerful truth on a airline flight from Seattle to Newark.

When I was studying at One Spirit Interfaith Seminary, I made this particular trip quite frequently and it is a long flight. Usually I would board the plane in Seattle around lunch time, having left home mid-morning, and arrive in Newark around 8pm. By the time I took a cab into New York City, it would be after 9pm. I generally wouldn't get dinner when I arrived that late.

Food becomes an issue for me on long travel days. My body is sensitive to wheat. I try to avoid eating it as much as possible. Airline food generally isn’t a great match for my dietary restrictions! If I don’t eat before I board this flight (which always seems to be a challenge), it can mean I go an entire day (often until the next morning) without food. Combine that with a tendency to get a bit motion sick on airplanes and the need to get up very early the day after travel (4am to my body) to attend my seminary class and it isn’t a pleasant physical experience.

On this particular day, I was delighted to find that I had been upgraded, for free, to first class. I relaxed a bit, knowing that I didn’t need to try and rush to eat something prior to boarding the flight. In the Seattle airport my options are rather limited and generally my pre-flight food ends up being less-than-optimal fast food. With the upgrade I had a much better shot at getting a decent meal and staving off the queasiness that I usually get on this particular travel itinerary and flight schedule.

I settled into my window seat in the last row of first class. I noticed the woman next to me was talking to the woman in front of her. They both had aisle seats and were obviously traveling together. I thought, “Gee… maybe I should offer to let them sit together.” Then, I thought about how much I enjoy window seats and how I get less queasy when I can see outside. I decided that if they asked me to move, I would. Otherwise I’d stay put.

The flight attendant came around to take lunch orders. I could hear her moving through the first class cabin giving people a choice of steak, chicken or a pasta bowl. I was pleased and made up my mind to have steak. She got to our row and addressed the people on the other side of the plane first. Then she asked the woman next to me, “Chicken or a Pasta bowl?” “Hmmmm…” I thought. “They are out of steak. Oh well… chicken will be ok.” The woman next to me ordered chicken. The attendant then turned to me, “I’m sorry, but all we have left is the pasta bowl, will that be ok?”

I had a very strong internal reaction. I hadn’t eaten anything in the airport and was potentially facing not being able to eat until the next morning. I had counted on my first class meal. I had to calm myself internally before I responded to her. I explained my wheat allergy and said that I wouldn’t be able to eat the pasta. She offered to bring me two salads. I accepted, but was not happy.

It is what happened next, however, that shocked me most. The woman next to me heard the entire story. She didn’t offer to trade lunches with me. She didn’t even offer to share her entrĂ©e with me. Then, I heard the flight attendant go back to the other 10 people in first class, and ask each one if they would trade. She explained that a person had a wheat allergy and couldn’t eat the pasta bowl. It didn’t matter. No one was willing to trade, share, or do without their meal.

It was quite a moment for me. Most of these people looked quite well fed. Most were obviously seasoned business travelers. I was amazed that their meals could be so important to them. The sense of entitlement and oblivion to someone else’s predicament was stunning to me.

No one looked around the first class cabin that day. I don’t think anyone wanted to face ‘the person with the wheat allergy’ that they had turned their backs on! It felt strangely cold and distant. Selfishness breeds isolation.

The woman next to me ate 2 bites of her chicken, and left all the rest of her meal on her plate. I ate my two salads, and the flight attendant was kind enough to bring me a foil package of tuna fish to squeeze onto them. I felt a bit like a 16 year old dieter.

I was saddened and amazed as I watched the entire situation unfold. How could people be so selfish and self absorbed?

Then, I remembered my opportunity to offer to trade seats with the woman in the row ahead of me. I had let my own selfish needs prevent me from even offering! An “ah-ha” moment to be sure. She might have said no… maybe she wanted the aisle. But, I could have offered… and I didn’t. I put my needs and preferences first. Just like the other 11 people in first class had done when faced with my meal challenge.

Sometimes Spirit gives us ‘larger than life’ reflections of the patterns inside us. The 11 people in the first class cabin that day, showed me an exaggerated version of my own selfishness and sense of entitlement. It is in there, or I couldn’t have seen it and experienced it in them. It was a lesson well learned!

By the way… the woman in the aisle seat in front of me (the seat that would have been mine if I had traded with her)… ate steak for lunch. :)

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