Beyond the Sea

So far this year, I have visited four airports, and here are the top five things I’ve learned (in no particular order):

  1. The Orlando airport does not sell gum due to the high volume of children (and/or adults) who seem to think carpet is a great place to store it. Our actions have consequences, people; chew responsibly.
  2. When you fly into Denver, you won’t actually see the city. Don’t worry, it does exist.
  3. On another note, Denver does seem to be the gathering place for nice-looking gentlemen sporting flannel shirts and well-kept beards. Plan future accordingly.
  4. The best place to get ice cream in Chicago Midway is not Ben and Jerry’s; it’s a tiny Italian sandwich shop halfway down the C terminal. Go for the cookies ‘n cream.
  5. The man who plays piano at the bottom of the Oakland baggage claim stairs is making an otherwise boring landscape beautiful. Bring cash to tip.

I love airports. I love walking up and down the terminal and observing the chaos. I love the challenge of finding the cheapest, least offensive food possible – and I’ve been surprisingly successful in my recent efforts (see number 4 above). I love the huddled mass around the Arrival and Departure screens, the hum of announcements no one listens to, and the wave of excitement everybody seems to be riding as they prepare for the journey. But even more than all of that, I love airports because they let you be whoever you want to be.

Tired, anti-social magazine reader? You can be that (who knew the Kardashians were so interesting? You did, because you’re reading Us Weekly with no fear of being caught by your friends). Quiet, mysterious people-watcher? You can be that (just be sure not to stare too long or “mysterious” all of a sudden turns very, very creepy). Voracious consumer of every peanut butter M&M within a five mile radius? Go ahead, I have no room to judge (really, I don’t).

The beautiful truth about airports is no one is there to hold you accountable to who you are. No one can say “You’re different today” because no one saw you yesterday. If you’re traveling alone, you answer to no one but yourself, which makes airports an altogether delightful and deliciously freeing place to be.

Unfortunately, it also makes airports a very dangerous place to be.

Have you ever heard the phrase “no man is an island”? It was coined about 400 years ago by a guy named John Donne, one of the most influential poets in British history (in my not-so-humble opinion). He wrote it at a time he believed he was going to die from a long illness, and like most of us would, he was trying to extract whatever meaning he could from the situation. The fact that he came up with this particular line astounds me.

Rather than spend what he thinks will be his final paragraphs predicting what heaven might be like or saying goodbye, Donne argues with all the urgency and objectivity of an evening news reporter that we are connected to each other in ways we can’t even imagine. Since “all mankind is of one author,” he says, every plot point influences and affects the other, like a line of falling dominoes. In essence, we are not so independent as we would like to believe, and when we acknowledge that, “we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven.”

When I heard Donne’s words a few weeks ago, I didn’t think much of it. Considering how good I was at “being an island”, it just didn’t seem to apply to me (how often we ignore warnings because we are oh-so-obviously the exception to the rule). Then I remembered what my last trips across the country were really like, and for the first time, I began to wonder if I was wrong.

My last few airport excursions did not, as I would have you believe, consist of sunshine, lollipops, and peanut butter M&Ms. The last time I boarded an airplane, I turned into someone I didn’t like. Without the watchful eyes of my friends and family, I didn’t have to try as hard to be friendly and kind to those around me, so I wasn’t. Without my responsibilities staring me straight in the face, I could ignore them, so I did. Because “I could handle it on my own” I pushed aside any show of kindness, and because other people weren’t contributing to the conversation (or allowed anywhere near it), I dismissed them as unimportant. I even saw someone I knew and turned the other way.

For the record, I’m not super proud of that.

This doesn’t just happen every time I walk through an airport. If I’m honest, I buy into the lie that I’m better off alone nearly every day, and it almost always turns me into a person I’d rather you not see. If I’ve learned anything from my recent travels, it’s that independence and self-sufficiency and “alone time” may be fine things in and of themselves, but when I give them free reign in my life, I become a small, scared, selfish human being who misses out on the depth and richness of human connection. Sure, for a moment I get to be whoever I want to be, but as it turns out, I don’t like who I’ve come up with.

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less…

Friends, I’m beginning to think the poet was right (wouldn’t be the first time). Maybe we are thoroughly and inextricably linked and we won’t become whole until we see that. Maybe the only way to be rid of our ignorance is to listen to each other’s stories. Maybe we need someone to tell us when we’re not our best self because we don’t always see it on our own. Maybe you have something to offer the world that no one else can and I am the lesser for not finding out what it is. Maybe, as C.S. Lewis says, “We are born helpless. As soon as we are fully conscious, we discover loneliness. We need others physically, emotionally, and intellectually. We need them if we are to know anything, even ourselves.”

I’m tired of pretending I’m better on my own. I’m tired of choosing fear and selfishness over intimacy and relationship. I’m tired of shutting people out in the name of safety and freedom and getting neither in the end. Starting a conversation with the person sitting next to me in the plane may be a small, symbolic step on a very complicated bridge back to shore, but I want to take it.

Because I am not an island, friend, and neither are you; will you go to shore with me?

*This post is for Briar; when a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less. You are missed, friend. 

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6 thoughts on “Beyond the Sea

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