Around this time last year, my band and I went to perform in Anchorage for the first time. Until then, we'd been to every state in the Union except Alaska, and it was very exciting to finally check this noble land off our US touring bucket list. Generally while on a tour, I've often been what you might call "a stick in the mud." I haven't enjoyed traditional sightseeing in the cities we've gotten to visit. I could mostly be counted on to stay in our bus or the hotel room. This is not due to any lack of enthusiasm or appreciation for the particular city we were in, but largely due to an unshakable focus and all-consuming apprehension about the looming performance.
But Alaska was different.
For some reason, I had become obsessed with seeing the Northern Lights and was absolutely determined to make a separate journey during this trip to experience this legendary natural phenomenon. That night, we played our show and went back to our respective rooms to shower and change. I fell asleep. When I woke the next morning, I realized I'd missed the opportunity to see mother nature's greatest natural light show. I was so, so angry.
I had to go straight to the airport to catch the flight back to New York City, and I descended further into what became a full-blown foul mood. I was flying by myself, and the contrast of the busy airport with my own desolate malevolence was enhancing the feelings of isolation and darkness. I boarded my flight after a couple of delays, exhausted and grumpy with self-loathing, when finally it looked like I'd caught a break. It seemed I'd have an entire row of seats to myself.
Of course, my luck was short lived. Just seconds before the cabin door closed, a very large gentleman—not overweight, but big and broad and oversized—came bounding down the aisle in a flustered state. And of course, like some sort of cosmic justice for my bad attitude, he heaved himself down into the small single open seat next to me, my designated neighbor for the very long flight.
He was dressed as though he had just come straight from an arctic expedition. He had on an extremely large and long puffy winter coat with all these cold weather accessories, several bags and backpacks, and more additional belongings than he could fit into the overhead. He was blustering and overwrought with sweaty disorganization.
The manner in which he sat down and continued to readjust himself and his belongings seemed meticulously choreographed to fill up as much space as possible. With a sort of disarming aloofness, he artfully consumed such an extreme amount of room that I was in a state of awe. It all suggested he had some sort of advanced solipsistic ability to live as though no one in the world existed but him. I started going into an emotional tailspin, trying to resist the urge to do or say anything aggressive. The ordeal had taken on all the drama of a heroic test—could I withstand this physical encroachment without losing my cool? I wasn't sure.
I realized that this six-hour flight was going to feel like 12. Or maybe an eternity.
I tried hard to rise above it all. I quieted myself, closed my eyes. Like some sort of sick karmic joke, each time I began to get comfortable with my discomfort, or glimpse the possibility of simulated serenity, he would inevitably jostle me, and begin a new wrestling match with his jacket, or his pillow, and thrash again and readjust. It was impossible to forget he was there. I dug deep for strength. "Say nothing. Do not react."
In an instant, I had gone from a quiet rage about this man to being totally humbled by him.
But as he continued to thrash, I started getting angrier still, taking it personally. I began wishing him some sort of harm. I imagined horrible things happening to him, like him perishing in some sort of terrible accident—quickly realizing that wasn't the best line of thought considering we were on an airplane together. I then began making assumptions about what kind of shallow, stupid person he must be.
Through it all, I managed, just barely, to hold on to some semblance of common courtesy. At one point, I had to get up and go to the restroom. I excused myself, apologized profusely in a calm and respectful tone, all desperately trying to keep some kind of thread of a safety net of civility, both for him and for me. If I didn't cling to these sort of basic manners, I felt like I would snap and the floodgates to my most sadistic impulses would burst open and all hell would break loose.
I went to the bathroom, and I stayed in there for as long as I could get away with. I was trying to regain my composure and take a little moment of refuge before I had to go back into this war zone. I came back determined to will myself to sleep. When I finally achieved my goal and went under, another jostle.
This time it seemed almost violent. He was tapping me. Hard. I turned to him, very close to finally losing my cool. And just before I could yell, "Sir, what in God's name is wrong with you? Can't you see I'm trying to sleep!?" I saw that he was pointing past me excitedly, his eyes sparkling, a slight look of wonder on his face. In my sleepy haze, it took a second to understand what he was saying.
"Look!" he said. "Look, look! It's the Northern Lights! It's the Northern Lights!"
I looked out the window, and there they were.
I couldn't believe it. This stranger I'd convinced was placed on this flight specifically to torment me had shown me the one sight I'd wanted so badly to see during my time in Alaska. In an instant, I had gone from a quiet rage about this man to being totally humbled by him. I was so immediately relieved that I had resisted the urge to be cruel or rude to him and didn't lash out in my anger. If I hadn't, he might not have shown me the Northern Lights.
That's not the only reason I was happy. I realized he'd likely not done anything all that egregious. I'd poisoned our interaction before it had even begun with my foul mood. That's why we have these things called "good manners," to save us from ourselves—to save us from mistreating someone who doesn't deserve it. Civility is a mechanism with which we can habitually learn to give everyone the benefit of the doubt.
People deserve to be treated well whether you know they do or not. I've often heard people proudly declare that they "respect people only if they show me respect first," but if everyone followed that rule, no one would end up showing anyone respect. We each have to make the first move, and not wait for proof the people we encounter have earned our kindness.
We elevate ourselves when we elevate others first. It is through these small and simple actions—even when they're forced or faked or unnatural or run counter to our current mood—that we rediscover and maintain our faith in humanity and in our own best potential. It's a test we're worthy of devoting ourselves to daily. In many ways, doing so can help us better see the light.
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