What I Learned While Trapped on a Plane!

 

It was that moment…

When you realize no matter the fit, no matter the fuss, no matter the f@*ks uttered under your breath in frustration, you ain’t changing the outcome.

Nothing you can do… Suck it up big boy.

I found myself in just such a situation a few weeks back on my return flight from Hong Kong.

It was a late flight. I usually like to get back home early so I can prepare for the coming week, but for some reason now lost to the fog of memory, I booked an 8:00pm flight out of Hong Kong which would’ve put my home in Chengdu, China around 11:00pm.

Not great, but not too bad. Not too late. I’ll still be good on Monday morning. No worries, right?

Well… as it turned out, the malicious God of AirTravel had other plans for me.

See, it was monsoon seasons across much of Asia (May/June) and there was evidently some sort of hellacious storm between Hong Kong and Chengdu that we needed to avoid for safety reasons. I knew this because the pilot said so over the intercom after we were all boarded, buckled up and ready to fly.

He assured us it’d be a short delay… in the same tone the pediatrician tells your kid that the shot won’t hurt.

I’d been in this situation before, it’s frustrating, sure, but delayed flights are one of the realities of travel (especially in China). So I just popped in my AirPods and selected my favorite playlist.

And an hour dragged by.

I had an aisle seat, which is my second favorite seat after the window (middle seats are for kids and suckers) so the flight attendants and bathroom bound fellow travelers nudged me more than necessary… or so I began to think.

They’re bumping me on purpose…

I cranked up the volume to drown out the 360° Chinese chatter and let out a breath that was more hiss-like than I would’ve admitted at the time. One hour into the delay and I had already begun to meltdown. I wasn’t Chernobyl yet, but the rector was for sure heading into the red…

I could feel it…

My favorite songs began to grate on my nerves. I advanced through the playlist, NEXT-NEXT-NEXT, almost before the song had started, suddenly annoyed with the BPM, the hook, the autotuned voice or… anything and everything.

I yanked the AirPods from my ears. Checked my watch.

It’d been over an hour now.

We were still attached to the boarding tunnel and hadn’t moved an inch so in the back of my mind I had initially taken comfort in the assumption that if the delay proved too long, they’d just let us off to get hotels or explore the terminal.

That assumption proved wrong and what began as a “short delay” devolved into a six hour ordeal of anger, soul searching, meditation and acceptance.

Remain Calm

I can be impatient. Entitled and inflexible.

In other words… an a@@hole. And it’s not that I start each day or each moment as an a@@hole–I believe deeply in concepts like patience and pliability–I just sometimes forget to not allow myself to turn into an a@@hole…

Does that make sense?

When the stupidity of certain situations becomes obvious to me–after quietly building like storm clouds, just over yonder–the slightest provocation can cause said clouds to roll in lighting hot, carrying thunder enough to deafen my better judgement.

I have struggled with enjoying the moment my entire life. I’m not sure where this comes from, but I have an incredibly hard time relaxing and just accepting the now.

As an example, I’ve been to numerous live music shows in my life and almost without exception, by the time I get a drink and settle into my seat or jostle for my small patch of the mosh-pit, I can’t wait to leave.  I want the band to get on with it already and give me the greatest hits as fast as possible so I can get the hell out of there.

I’m weird that way.

So you can imagine being trapped on a plane with 200 strangers, hour after hour, wasn’t exactly my happy place.

I flagged down a flight attendant.

“How much longer?” I asked.

She spoke broken English so she went and grabbed a co-worker who then told me:

“Not much longer, maybe just two hours.” And she said this with a smile and a tone that was in complete incongruence to that devastating message.

“Two hours?!?!” I blurted.

We’d already been waiting over an hour at this point and two more hours of this seemed too Guantanamo for me to endure.

“Yes!” She said and flashed that smile again.

“I need to get off the plane. Can I get off the plane?” I asked.

“You want to get off the plane?”

“Yes.”

“You want to get off the plane?”

Jesus…

“Yes. Again. I just said yes, I want to get off the plane. Said it three times now.”

She looked over her shoulder for… I’m not sure, but I think it was to search for a TelePrompTer because she had forgotten the script and could only mumble–

“–you want to get off the plane?”  For the third time now, I sh*t you not.

“Yes, I want to get off the plane. We are still at the gate, all you need to do is open the door.” I said.

She smiled at me and bless her for not asking me again if I wanted to get off the plane.

By now, two of her colleagues had gathered around and the only other western passengers, a couple in their early sixties, were craning their necks over the back of their seats wondering what all the fuss was about.

To be clear, I never once raised my voice nor dropped an audible expletive. I was firm, but polite and understanding of the fact that the flight crew did not make the weather and were then (obviously) in no way at fault for the delay.

I smiled back. Nodded my head.

Smiled again.

And insisted I be let off the plane.

The three flight attendants disappeared down the aisle in opposite directions, promising to be right back with an answer.

I kinda felt like a dick, but I wasn’t rude or unruly, I just wanted to stretch my legs and get a Starbucks or something… anything that didn’t include being trapped on this plane.

I caught eyes with the sixty something couple, and from their reproachful smirks I knew they were HOA board members somewhere in Florida… I was sure of it. Walking the gated neighborhood in their sandals and socks, clipboards in hand, keeping track of who’s front lawn was overgrown or whose satellite dish could be seen from the front sidewalk. Any infraction to justify their monthly meetings.

I smiled the best f*@k off smile I could muster, sent it in their direction and returned my gaze to the playlist on my phone.

The English speaking flight attendant returned and kneeled next to me, seemingly to ease the message she was about to give me.

She smiled. I smiled.

“If you checked luggage, you cannot leave the plane.” She said.

“Ok… Why?”

“Security risk.”

“You mean like there might be a bomb in my suitcase?”

Her face froze. Her lips twitched… and everything kinda slowed down.

Slow like Agent Smith shooting at me in The Matrix slow.

You see… I said the B word.

B is for Bomb!

It rolled off my tongue without a thought… It just popped out.

Like a sneeze induced fart.

Yet, and here is the most amazing thing about this entire night and proof the aforementioned God of AirTravel hates me, this Transgression of all transgressions, the dirtiest word in the world of flight, STILL didn’t get me kicked off the plane! I’d just committed the biggest sin in all of aviation short of storming the cockpit and this lady did nothing.

“We will be taking off shortly sir, please be patient.”

And that was when I realized the God of AirTravel had placed me in this situation for a reason. She had plans for me.

Lessons to be taught.

Lessons to learn…

 

Instant Community

While I lulled myself into an altered state with a guided meditation app (necessary to keep my heart from exploding with frustration) something really interesting began to happen on the plane.

I noticed it by mistake.

The girl next to me was handing something over the seat-back in front of us and it slipped out of her hand and floated into my lap.

A playing card. The Two of Hearts.

I handed it back to her, she took it and promptly handed it to the guy peering over the seat. He snatched it, ducked down for a second and then popped back up and handed her another card. Then the girl at the window raised up, twisted around and handed a card to the old man behind her. He handed one back, she looked at it and smiled, then showed her friend seated next to me and they shared a giggle.

No one asked me to play…

As I watched them, I began to notice very subtle gestures and body language ticks that suggested to me none of these people had known each other prior to boarding the flight (besides the two girls next me). They laughed politely and smiled a little too often and just generally treated each other like guests rather than family.

I looked down the aisle.

People were calmly walking up and down, chatting freely with the people they passed, sharing food across the aisle. Everyone looked to be having a blast and yet all I wanted to do was scream and break something.

What the hell is going on?

While I stewed and wished for a different reality, seemingly everyone else on this flight chose another path. They had created an instant community. Strangers were no longer present here. People had reached out over the seat-backs or across the aisle and met a new friend.

All while I chanted internally and prayed for a quick death.

 

The Moment… You’ll Miss It When It’s Gone

I haven’t been completely honest in this post.

Even though I wrote things like “..that was when I realized..”, if I’m gonna be real with you, I need to come clean and confess that I didn’t understand anything about this situation in the moment. I was too in my own head, wishing to be anywhere but there, to be able to relax and have any quasi-spiritual epiphanies, let alone meet a new friend or play poker with my Row 42 seat-mates.

So… forgive me, but it reads better with some teases about my learnings thrown in.

And learn I did.

After landing at 3:45am in Chengdu, China (my home town for now) and crawling into bed at 5:00am before waking at 7:00am to go to a work meeting, I began to think back on this event and to see what I couldn’t while it all spun around me.

I began to understand that I’d missed the moment and didn’t truly live for those six hours.

I existed, sure.

But I didn’t live.

The Buddha spoke of the moment and how all life is contained in the here and now. The past is over and the future is yet to come, so logically, the only thing that truly exists is… NOW.

He argued that if we miss it, this precious moment of nowness, we don’t actually live our life because our minds are always projected back or forward into some narrative that is long gone or hasn’t happened yet and probably won’t.

I paraphrase his teachings at will, so again, apologies, but that is what they mean to me. I get this from a logical, book smart kinda way, but the challenge for me is: how do I see this in the actual moment? How do I catch myself when I slip from reality– the now–and enter the dreamworlds of the past and future?

It’s hard and the Buddha cautioned that it can take a life time (or multiple lifetimes) to fully achieve this ability. And he called it Enlightenment, the cessation of suffering.

We suffer because we cut ourselves off from the natural rhythms of life. We barricade ourselves behind dogma, opinion, taste and preferences and miss the excitement and verve of a life lived at random and directed by happenstance.

It can be fun if we let it.

I learned a lot reflecting back on this flight and the amazing people who seemed to embrace the moment more than I was able to. It would be easy to see this as an example of Eastern Wisdom vs. Western Lack There Of and perhaps culture did play a part. The vast majority of the passengers on the plane hailed from countries where Buddhism has flourished (and/or suppressed) for thousands of years. Perhaps some of the teachings seeped in, over time, even if the individual isn’t a practicing Buddhist.

Perhaps I’m just an a@@hole and these people are not.

Either way, I failed this challenge at the time, but walked away with a good story that I can reflect back upon as a reminder to stay in the moment…

That is, as long as I don’t linger too long on the remembrance of this story and thus…

Miss the moment.

 

 

One thought

  1. Most chinese people are not much active and extroverted than Western people. You can just ask to join in them and they would never reject you.

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