United Flight 2294

2020-02-28

I've never used the phrase "watershed moment", but I have the strong feeling that that's exactly what I experienced today.

Part of the relevant context here is that I've recently devoured all of Brené Brown's work available on Audible--all her books and all the recorded talks. I have a lot more to say about all that, but there are two important ideas that felt especially relevant today: (1) that, in general, everybody is doing the best they can, and (2) that, when in the grips of an extremely unpleasant emotion, like anger, it's really important to practice mindfulness, figure out what's going on, and then decide soberly how to act.

Let me paint you a picture of what was going on with me.

I had been having a bit of a frustrating day. I was on the third leg of travel for a three-week trip from home in San Francisco, to a week in Colorado with Diana, to a week in Seattle for work, and now on my way to LA for a week with family and friends before the annual UCLA Men's Rowing Alumni Weekend. Travel is already stressful for me, between being away from my beloved stability and routines and having to deal with TSA theatre. But on this trip, I was rumbling with some difficult things in my professional life (for which I am eternally grateful to my manager for his support, guidance, and compassion) and a few other emotionally challenging things.

I arrived at SEA airport early, because travel anxiety. I was flying Alaska Airlines for the first time, because it was the only direct flight from SEA to BUR, and I didn't want to fly into LAX. Even though they had my email address in one system, they didn't have it in some other system, despite being totally able to make the correlation, and as a result, they never sent me any updates about my flight. So it was lucky that I happened to think to check my flight status. First, 40 minutes delayed when I arrived at the airport. Then an hour. I decided to mill around a gift shop. Checked the flight status. Cancelled.

I stood in a line comprising nearly all the other passengers on my plane, waiting to talk to Alaska Airlines customer service. Meanwhile, I overheard people talking about how they were out of vouchers, there were no other flights, how they'd have to find hotels, etc. I was expecting the worst.

When I got to the front, I chose to practice patience and compassion. I knew this customer service guy was dealing with a lot of frustrated people, probably treating him badly. So I was kind and thankful for his help. He got me a flight on United with, ironically, a stop in SFO. I had 10 minutes to get clear across the airport. I was speedy, and the lady at the United counter of the gate let me on the flight. I was extremely appreciative for her help.

When I got on the plane, a flight attendant helped me find a spot for my roller bag. Again, over-the-top thankfulness from me. I was a little frazzled, but mostly grateful that I would be making it into LA today and that I made it onto the plane. Perhaps strangely, I was in a pretty good mood. But in retrospect, from what I learned from Brené Brown, I now find it completely unsurprising that practicing gratitude made me feel good.

I had a middle seat, but a guy was in it. I figured the aisle was his, so I offered him that better aisle seat. He asked whether he was in my seat, but I said if he wanted it, he could have it, that I would be happy to take the aisle.

I slumped into my aisle seat, glad to be able to relax. A different flight attendant walked by and told me my backpack had to fit all the way under the seat in front of me, and since she estimated that it couldn't, I should put it in an overhead bin. But no problem; this is my standard overstuffed backpack that I regularly fit on United flights, even in those narrower aisle seats. I told her it would be fine, but she said I had better take care of it before the plane pulls away from the gate.

I fit it under the seat in front of me and took off my snow boots (yeah, snow boots, because they wouldn't fit in my luggage, and I needed them for Colorado). Despite other bags elsewhere similarly situated, the flight attendant walked by again and made a fuss about my bag, insisting that it wasn't satisfactory. I could tell that the bag was caught on something under the seat, preventing it from going all the way under (thanks, TSA, for making me repack my backpack), but I was feeling frantic, and I couldn't sort it out. She insisted that I put it in the overhead bin. She demanded that I give her my near-50-lb bag, so I did, saying "Good luck", and when she saw how heavy it was, she instructed me to get up and put it up. She then scolded me by telling me that the only reason we were dealing with this was that I didn't follow her instructions in the first place. I mumbled something about how this isn't usually a problem.

I was pretty angry, and I felt a little humiliated. Over Facebook Messenger, I told Diana that "a United flight attendant is being a bitch about my backpack". My entire good mood was ruined.

I stewed about it for a bit and distracted myself with some TV on my tablet. And it would have been so easy to just stay angry at the flight attendant and have the rest of my evening ruined, an evening that ended up containing numerous additional trials and tribulations, like my luggage that didn't make it to BUR and the 10+ hours it took me to get from Seattle to LA, door to door. But I decided to really engage with what I was feeling and to try to empathize with what she was feeling.

I realized that, while I might have been right about my backpack's being able to fit, her position was entirely understandable, and I explicitly concluded that she really must have been doing the best she could. She probably has to deal with obstinate people jamming up the process on a regular basis. She couldn't have known I knew what I was doing and that something on my backpack just got caught.

So I decided to do the really hard thing, which was really uncomfortable for me in the moment. After the food and drink service had concluded, I went to the aft galley where she was. I can't remember exactly how I articulated it, but I told her that I wanted to apologize for being difficult earlier. I explained a bit about the air travel fiasco I had just gotten resolved and how I usually don't have this problem, even in aisle seats, but that overall, I didn't mean to make her job difficult. I wasn't sure what to expect, but she was extremely gracious and kind. She apologized for snapping at me. Then she offered me a drink on the house, and we had a nice chat about my trip, and how ironic it was that we're on our way to SFO at the moment, and it would be nice for me to drop off my snowboard so that I don't have to lug it through LA. She called me her favorite passenger.

I went back to my seat, but I couldn't return to my show. I was completely preoccupied by this raw, authentic connection I had made with a random stranger. I started crying. I was almost in disbelief about how good the interaction felt. When she walked past me, she touched my shoulder tenderly and gave me a smile.

I felt so good. And what's more, it felt like the moment that I really got it--like REALLY got it--how compassion, empathy, and gratitude can diffuse anger. I always knew it and believed it, intellectually, and it was certainly consistent with experiences I've had, but this was a powerful manifestation of that principle in action.

I decided to do another thing, which was also hard. After we landed and all the other passengers deplaned, I held back and asked her if I could share something with her. I acknowledged it was a bit awkward, and I was super inarticulate. She had a somewhat bewildered look on her face as she and another flight attendant were trying to gather their things to also deplane. I explained to her how I had been angry after our interaction and how I had been trying to be more mindful, so it was hard for me to come to her earlier to apologize. I told her how I didn't know what to expect, but I was so grateful for her kindness and how she reacted to me, how that helped me to have confidence in doing a hard thing, especially when I could have just stayed angry. I pointed out how air travel is very fertile ground for breeding anger and resentment already, so this was especially meaningful. I told her how I'd never forget it. She apologized for snapping at me again, and I said something like how I'm glad she did, because we got to connect in this way. At some point, I could see that she was teary-eyed as well.

In retrospect, I'm embarrassed that my gut reaction was to think of her as being a "bitch". (I want to say "ashamed", rather than "embarrassed", but I'm not sure if that's technically the right word...that's a longer discussion for a different time.) But I'm not beating myself up about it...that was my "shitty first draft", and I'm proud of having used that as a trigger to reassess the whole situation.

As I reflect on this experience, I find it very sobering. I like to think of myself as very sensitive, mindful, considerate, and enlightened. Without minimizing what I've achieved, what this experience showed me was that I have a lot of opportunity to better identify situations where I can reframe my thinking and reorient myself, so that I can conduct myself in a way I can later be proud of. Correlatively, I'm filled with compassion and patience for folks who don't always do "the right thing". In my heart of hearts, I know that I'm generally doing the best I can. And if I was willing to stay angry through sheer default or even failing to muster up the willpower to do an emotionally difficult thing, I can very well understand how and why others are doing the best they can, even if they fall short of the "perfect" thing to do in a particular situation.

I am sure that I will slip up in the future, whether as a failure of being mindful or a failure of willing myself to do the difficult thing, but this was a powerful lesson for me.