The other night flying back from San Jose, the unthinkable happened. I was going about my usual business, in full-on Plane Mode, which involves earbuds in, making zero eye contact, and pretending like I’m invisible.
The airline had ditched my aisle seat reservation, choosing to award me with a schweet middle seat between two guys, one whom practiced his Levis-given right to manspreading. He spread like no man had ever spread before. He was on his laptop, and between his gaping thighs and his typing elbow, at all moments of the flight some part of his body was making contact with mine.
This is my favorite. I love hairy strangers pressing into me on planes. It’s the best.
Pushing my earbuds into my ears, I focused on Jamie Ivey’s Happy Hour Podcast, kept my eyes closed, and tried to pretend that I was alone. Breathe in, I-don’t-feel-your-elbow, breathe out, I-don’t-feel-your-thigh.
And then halfway through the podcast, it cut off without warning. Because I am a technological genius, apparently only half of it had downloaded to my phone and the other half was out in cyberspace waiting for me to pay $39.99 or whatever for wifi on the plane.
Forget it. I’d read a book. I happened to be in the middle of a really good one, an early copy of my friend Logan Wolfram’s new book, Curious Faith, and I was falling in deep like with her even more as her friendly voice leapt off the pages.
Soon I forgot where I was and was having a conversation with Logan in my head. And then the unexpected happened. One of the men flanking me spoke.
Was it Manspreader? No, he was content to flank me with his flanks, and I was trying to get the armrest down to provide some meager separation, and also trying to put myself in his shoes, that it must be hard to have your extreme manliness constricted to a tiny airplane seat. Poor lil’ manspreader. He was doing his best.
Nope, it was the other guy, who, because of his uncanny ability to keep his limbs to himself, I hadn’t really noticed other than “beard,” which describes about three-fifths of the population these days. Thanks, hipsters.
I turned in my seat to look at Beard, and he asked me a question. And then I did something completely out of character. I talked to someone on an airplane.
Beard: The book you’re reading…what’s it about?
Me: It’s by my friend, and she’s writing about how her faith makes her curious and leads her into adventure.
Beard: And…what kind of faith is it?
Me: It’s Christian faith.
This little bit of conversation on a plane was a lot for me. I was ready to go back to my book. But I felt like youth group Melanie was looking down on me nudging me with “He’s asking about your faith! Say something!” So I continued.
Me: Do you…have a faith? (You guys, I’m so awkward on planes.)
Him: I’m a Muslim.
And he looked at me like duh, and then I actually looked at him and realized he was dressed in traditional clothing and I would’ve noticed if I hadn’t been in Plane Mode. We got to talking and it turns out he lives near where I used to live and has a wife and kids and I found myself chatting it up with a stranger on a plane. So proud.
He asked me questions about my faith and wanted to understand why there are different categories of Christianity like Catholic and Protestant and all the denominations. I tried my best to answer and said the thing we all have in common is that we believe Jesus died on the cross for our sins and rose from the dead.
And then I said, “Tell me about your faith.” And he did. He spoke about the Quran and praying and what he believes. I asked him if he’d experienced any discrimination because of what’s going on in our country. He said, “That’s a good question.”
We had what was the longest conversation I’ve ever had with a stranger on a plane. We were two people with two different faiths, and we had a respectful dialogue. We asked questions and we listened to each other. Neither one of us tried to convert the other or make the other conform to one idea. We both simply learned something about the other person.
In our current climate of heated debate and demonizing others, this small exchange restored my faith in individuals and our ability to get to know one another and develop respect and understanding.
As the sun started to set, I asked him how he’d do his prayers on the plane. He explained that since the plane was small and there was no area to kneel, that he would do it right in his seat.
Him: I’ll leave you to your book.
Me: I’ll leave you to your prayers.
He donned his cap and bent to pray, and I returned to Curious Faith and smiled. A Christian and a Muslim get on a plane. I felt one small victory for humanity.
When we listen, we all win.
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