Boarding position B60.
I contemplated the reality of my seat choice as the 120th+ person to board the plane: a rear-craft middle seat was my likely spot for the next three and a half hours.
Imagine my surprise when I stepped into the front of the plane and discovered the first row, aisle seat was empty. (Aisle seat!) My countenance brightened and my knees and legs stretched at the thought of the legroom available in that coveted location.
I paused, thinking it was too good to be true. The two seats in that row were occupied by a mother and her older, teenage son—perhaps the other parent was nearby? But not wanting to pass up the opportunity, I asked—with doubt in my voice—if the seat was taken. I couldn’t believe her reply—it was available—and immediately claimed my moment of airborne serendipity.
But why? Why was this seat empty? This question would plague me the entire flight.
The mother—who was extremely pleasant—had taken the middle seat. The son was an older teen—so there was no crying baby. At least 119 other people had passed up all that leg room and the adjacency to being the first off. OK—so there’s no tray on that row but is that really a deal-breaker? There was even a bit of space in the overhead for my carry-on. And certainly not everyone traveling was coupled and none of the other stereotypes of the person you don’t want to sit by on a flight seemed to fit.
Then—about halfway into the flight—it hit me.
The woman and her son were of middle-eastern descent.
Surely not, I thought to myself.
Surely all those people did not pass up that seat—that coveted, kick-ass, full-legroom, first one off the plane seat—because of the occupants’ perceived race or religion.
I wrestled with this for the rest of the flight; days later, on the return flight home, it’s still bothering me.
I think it’s bothering me because I wonder how many times in my life have I passed up a seat—actual seats, yes, but also metaphorical ones—because its neighboring occupant was someone I did not want to be adjacent to.
You know: a person with a potentially screaming child. A poor person. An overweight person. A differently abled person. A person whose race or attire or tattoos or countenance were used to judge them as someone of questionable character. And so on.
Sure, I didn’t think twice about this woman’s race or religion when I sat down; but I know that there are people with other characteristics that I might have.
Yet: I am grateful for that empty seat—and not just because of the legroom and getting off the plane first. That empty seat confronted me with the reality of so many learned –isms at work not just in society, but in my own life. For when I “leave the seat empty,” I miss the opportunity to model an inclusive, accepting worldview and a theology that says every neighbor should be loved as myself.
44. a prophet among us