The Man in the Seat Next to Me

I was flying Southwest from Houston back to ABQ after a challenging all-day course I presented on the shale-gas revolution to a large Oil and Gas company. Waiting at the departure gate I looked up from my laptop to see an elderly man, tall and very thin, with untidy hair and poorly dressed, who was also waiting to catch my flight. I wonder how he can afford a plane ticket? was my thought.

My boarding pass was numbered A41, and so I was able to pick an aisle seat near the front of the plane. I settled in to read USA Today while the rest of the 200 or so passengers boarded. A man with a Balbo beard under a ball-cap was already seated by the window in my row, and we both were hoping a Jennifer Aniston would come and sit between us. I looked up to see the tall thin man coming down the aisle, and you guessed it, he indicated he would like to sit in the middle seat next to me.

Hiking toward heaven 1: Ice Lake above Silverton, Colorado (Debbie Loftin photo). Click on image to enlarge.


After the plane took off, I glanced sideways and the tall thin man had pulled a hoody over his head, which made me even less inclined to start a conversation. When the drinks came, he reached up to pass along the window man’s drink, and his two hands holding the plastic cup shook visibly.

In addition his hands and arms were quite red, like they had been burned. Now I became concerned. What if he has some infectious disease, and I am stuck in close contact for the two-hour plane trip?

As soon as I thought this I felt a bit guilty. Maybe I should act like the Good Samaritan, and at least ask him if he needs help? I did nothing, except continue to worry that I might catch something from him. The window man did nothing either. There was a stony silence in our row of seats, while from behind us wafted an animated conversation about the price of houses in Santa Fe.

The silence ensued until the last 15 minutes of our trip, when the window man, who was about forty, started speaking in muted tones about his own health to the thin man. I could only catch a word or phrase now and then: PSA, radiation, M.S. Anderson Center. The window man said he was thinking about proton therapy, which I had never heard of, but he said there were serious risks. Also hormone therapy, where they would remove all the testosterone from his body….he called it chemical castration. Despite all this, he revealed that he was fine at the moment, felt well, and was anxious to get back to work.

Meanwhile the thin man (whose face was now turned away from me) was offering comments from time to time, but in hushed tones, and I could hear very little of what he said. One thing that came across was that he was retired. Another was that he had been in Houston for treatment. As I lifted down my carry-on bag, the last words said by the window man to the thin man were “I wish you the best. Hang in there. We are on the same path. It can be beaten”.

As the realization came, I staggered emotionally as though I had been socked on the chin. The thin man also has cancer. I had judged the thin man, and misjudged him terribly. I was a Bad Samaritan, more concerned about me catching something infectious than offering to converse, and maybe finding some small way to offer help. Very un-Jesus-like. Did Jesus worry that he might catch something when he interacted with the lepers, or the prostitutes (see Bible verses below)? It’s pretty clear that Jesus did not judge those folks, but instead offered hope based on the gospel of grace (i.e. we do not have to earn God’s love, it’s already available to us and it’s free).

Conclusion: I surely hope God does not judge me like I judged the tall thin man! I can act like a Good Samaritan in church, where I will hold the door open for a well-dressed pregnant lady, for example. But I need to take a little more risk and interact with folks out in the real world who may be different from me and my church buddies. I need to expand to new territory the credo I have been promoting for two years: “Try to help someone to hope”.

I would love to hear from you if you have ever been caught in a situation anything like the one I have described above……..

Hiking toward heaven 2: Island Lake above Silverton, Colorado (Debbie Loftin photo).

The Gray Nomad.
Probing the practice of Christian believers……

“While Jesus was in one of the towns, a man came along who was covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he fell with his face to the ground and begged him, ‘Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.’ Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. ‘I am willing,’ he said. ‘Be clean!’ And immediately the leprosy left him”. (Luke chapter 5).

“And a woman of the town, an especially wicked sinner, when she learned that Jesus was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of perfume. Standing behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and she wiped them with the hair of her head; and kissed his feet affectionately, and anointed them with the perfume.

Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would surely know who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a notorious sinner – a social outcast devoted to sin’. And Jesus said ‘Simon, I have something to say to you….. Her sins, many as they are, are forgiven her because she has loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little’. And he said to the woman ‘Your sins are forgiven’”. (Luke chapter 7).

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10 years ago

Ian, Thank you so much for sharing what I have been guilty of also……Judging has become too common place amongst believers…..I am humbled by this story….God bless you, dear friend…….

10 years ago
Reply to  NancyHunter

Thank you Nancy for your comment, and I agree with you. I keep trying to be less judgemental also.

10 years ago

Appreciate and admire your transparency and humbleness. God bless you!!

10 years ago
Reply to  Kim

Thank you Kim. Transparent and humble seem to be child-like attitudes (but not childish), which are the opposite of ego-driven attitudes.

Linda Patino
Linda Patino
10 years ago

Ian, there are a lot of people just like you. It’s called legalism. The good thing is you learn from your mistakes. You are teachable. It’s when we refuse to transform, we miss out on the good life. May you continue to grow in Christ. Blessings.

10 years ago
Reply to  Linda Patino

Thanks for your insight Linda. I sincerely hope I have learned from this screw-up. I do agree that being teachable is important, as I have sadly met people who say that “counsel” will not help them, or “its too late to change”.

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