I’m in a rocking chair at the Knoxville airport. It’s a unique thing – at all of the large windows overlooking jet bridges and runways, there are rocking chairs of all sizes. Most of them are empty, save for the one I’m in. There are people around the airport waiting for their flight, heads down and illuminated by the screens beneath them.
It is silent. Eerily silent. Hundreds of people are around and all of them are alone. This isn’t the first time I’ve had this experience.
Several months ago I flew through Detroit. It’s one of four airports I’m likely to have a layover in – all Delta hubs – and at this point in my travel career, I navigate these monstrous thoroughfares without much of a second thought. I keep my headphones on and get wherever I need to go quickly. I’m not exactly sure why I took my headphones off, desiring to unseal the safety of my soundproof existence. Maybe I was just longing for the white noise of conversations, bags shuffling, laughter in the gate areas (or arguments with gate agents). After being on a flight for over three hours isolated within my computer and headphones I wanted some kind of human interaction, even if it was just the hum of our everyday human existence.
I took off my headphones and heard nothing.
It was the same chilling silence. Hundreds of people but no conversations, laughter, or even arguments about seat assignments. The quite hum of roller bag wheels scooting along a tile floor as people walked with their heads down, faces illuminated by a screen. It was as though I never removed my noise-canceling headphones but had simply muted my music. I walked in the silence, dodging people too immersed in their Twitter feed to see where they were going.
Maybe airports are just an anomoly. Travel induces anxiety in a lot of people and most of us just want to get from our origin to our destination. We don’t have time, at least we tell ourselves that, to make momentary friends as we wait for our plane to arrive. Instead, we look through our suggested pictures on Instagram of people we don’t know and places we’ve never been. It’s less creepy than just staring at people in an airport terminal, I guess. But it is basically the same idea.
I’m not any better. I get onto a plane and immediately put earbuds in to signal to my seatmate that I’m unavailable for a conversation. No, I don’t want to know where you are going. No, I don’t want to talk about your job. I certainly don’t want to talk about mine because I run the risk of offending what religious convictions you may have that disagree with mine. I might not even be listening to music in these headphones, but I do want to let you know that I have no interest in listening to you.
Am I at an airport bar grabbing some food? Same thing, just replace the headphones with my laptop. Yes, I’m very busy writing and responding to my cluttered catastrophe of an inbox. No, I don’t want to talk about the football game even though I’m watching that and not responding to my e-mails right now.
Why are we so averse to human interaction? What fear has spawned this isolationist mentality that the moment we leave our house we close our borders to any sort of human interaction that is face-to-face? I question this in myself, especially since all evidence I have about the value of human interaction is contrary to the way I conduct myself.
Meyers-Briggs says I’m an INFJ and I fit the description almost perfectly. I’m highly introverted, something that people don’t believe when they meet me.
“But you speak to people!”
Yes, from a stage – a safe place where I don’t need to stumble through small talk while the entire time thinking, “I’m going to say something stupid. Please don’t say something stupid. These people think you are intelligent and well spoken, please just say as little as possible so they don’t change their mind.”
It also means that I can have a lot of conversations in a day, but by the end I want to crawl under my covers and make a tiny little fort where I just sit in silence. So, you get an idea where my airport habits come from. I’m not one to strike up a conversation, but I can absolutely do it in dire circumstances.
Weather delays in Atlanta (read: two inches of snow) destroyed my travel plans en route to Columbus. I left Phoenix later than I hoped to arrive in Atlanta, and then when I got to Atlanta my flight to Columbus, originally slated to depart at 9:00 PM started to get pushed back…and back…and back.
And I arrived in Atlanta at 6:00 PM.
With nowhere to go I retreated to the airport lounge where I could drown my delay sorrows in an endless array of food and a coffee machine that made whatever drink you wanted on demand. It was going to be a long night.
I sat at the bar and plugged my laptop in, begin my isolationist ritual while keeping an eye on NFL Network and their coverage of top Fantasy Football plays for the week. I overheard the man next to me speaking to the bartender as he ordered a drink.
“Yeah, I just got back from Stockholm. Now, I’ve got what is supposed to be a 30-minute flight indefinitely delayed. So, looks like I’ll be here a while.”
Human connection. A shared experience. I look to my laptop. I don’t need a momentary friend.
Another man sits on the other side of me with a similar story. The two of them are bolder than I am and start a conversation across me. The three of us sit on the L shaped part of the bar, so they literally speak in front of my face as I continue to work, looking up at the television every few minutes to make sure I know who to play in my Sunday lineup.
Then, my shell is broken. One of them looks at me and asks –
“So, what do you do for work?”
My attempts to avoid comradarie have failed. It is obvious that everyone in that airport lounge is facing a similar situation of unknown delays of epic proportions. We are all a makeshift family, and you know what they say about family: You don’t get to choose them.
I reluctantly tell him I’m a writer, editor, and speaker for a Catholic Youth Ministry organization.
“You know,” he says, “I’ve got great ideas for a book. Probably not one you would publish, but tell me what you think.”
Normally, I would brace myself for a bad pitch and try to think of a way out of this conversation. But there is no way out. My plane is stuck in Grand Rapids with no departure time listed. I’m not going anywhere. I look longingly back at my computer screen and the safety of my pile of e-mails.
He begins by telling me about people riding burning motorcycles through the Iraqi desert.
OK – things just got interesting.
Turns out he works for a military contractor and had a lot of interesting stories. Who knew. The other guy was fascinated by my religious affiliation and we had a great discussion along with our new militar contractor friend. It never got mean. Never got heated. It was what dialogue should be.
Three hours later all of our flights were almost ready so we left together and said goodbye. I don’t remember my temporary friends’ names. But that doesn’t matter. We enjoyed each other’s presence and company at a time we needed it and that was enough. It wasn’t superficial or trite. It was fun. We left all better for it (I think). And it happened because we engaged rather than retreated. We chose presence over technology.
I wonder if much of our current cultural divide can be traced back to the “face-in-my-phone” culture. We stop seeing people as real people and as profile pictures. We judge them on 140 characters (or less) and condense their entire history, worldview, and personality into their Twitter bio and the last few things they retweeted. People are more than that. But engaging people is difficult. It means breaking out of our bubble and being comfortable. It means being present in the moment and not retreating into the warm blue light glow of our favorite device. It means being there.
There was a time when it took intentional effort to avoid conversations and people, but now it is quite the opposite. Our default is isolation. It takes effort to break out of the shell but it is an effort worth making. We open ourselves up to new stories, experiences, people, and even a few minute conversation can have a profound impact on our day and – dare I say – our overall outlook.
My boarding zone has been called and it is a little past 5:00 AM. Heads are looking up, still caught in a blue light daze from their iPhones, then back down to thumb through their Apple wallet seeking a boarding pass. I stand up and go to grab my headphones, but stop. I’ll leave them off this flight. At 5:00 AM I am doubtful anyone wants to have a conversation, but if they do I’ll be open to that possibility. We don’t always have to push engagement, sometimes it is enough just being there.
The rest follows.