A couple months ago, I was boarding a late flight to Vancouver. I had spent most of the day travelling, and was looking forward to getting to my final destination and my hotel room for a good night’s sleep. That’s what I was thinking about when I boarded the plane and made my way to seat 10D. That and the work I needed to get done.
I took my seat, pulled out my laptop and got straight to work. I was so focused that I really didn’t pay attention to anything else going on around me. I just got to work.
And that’s when the man sitting next to me began fidgeting in his seat. He was squirming quite a bit, and it didn’t take long for him to bump into me. I did the courteous, fake smile accompanied by a, “it’s okay” and got back to typing away. And then he bumped me again. I once again smiled, simply stated, “no worries” and continued to work.
Every 15 minutes or so this would happen.
And every time, I would slightly move my arm and smile while continuing to type away, acting very polite about the whole thing, but what I was really thinking was, “What in the world, bro? Do you not see that the clear divider of the armrest has been placed down, and you have not been granted permission to cross this universally recognized boundary of personal space? You have to know we are going to all be here for a while, so get comfortable and chill out because it is impeding on everyone else’s experience, and by everyone’s experience I mean mine!”
Then the man started adding some sporadic moaning to his fidgeting. That’s right, moaning. The first time it happened I thought to myself, “Okay, this is weird. He is definitely making me feel weird. And I shall definitely avoid eye contact with this gentleman for the rest of the flight.”
As he kept moving and moaning, the situation went from awkwardly comical to really annoying.
I finally turned to address this gentleman to kindly ask him to tone down his movements and his accompanying odd noises. And that’s when I saw for the first time since I sat next to this man almost and hour and a half ago that his right arm was in a sling, and he was clearly in pain.
I closed my laptop, realizing how foolish and self-centered I had been. “Excuse me, sir. Are you okay? Are you in pain?”
He sighed, and simply said, “Yes. It’s excruciating most of the time. I’ve been trying to find the right way to sit to minimize it, but nothing is working.”
“I’m so sorry, sir. May I ask what happened?”
That simple question turned into an hour and a half conversation where I mostly listened before praying with him. The man shared with me that he had been in a car accident that catapulted him into multiple surgeries, physical therapy and constant pain. Prior to the accident, he had made a name for himself as a successful fashion designer, but since the accident he was no longer able to work and had to shut down his company. He and his wife were struggling in their marriage because of the burden it has been for both of them. To make matters worse, doctors continue to be the bearer of bad news, predicting that he will have a lifetime of surgeries or chronic pain in his future, and most likely a combination of both. And to top it all off, he is consumed with worry over the major life decisions his grown sons are currently navigating.
I listened, offered some encouragement, and we prayed together. I didn’t have anything all that profound to say, but I did remind Him that God sees Him, that He is so very loved by Him, and that Jesus can heal his arm. At the end of the flight, I helped him with his bags and as we parted ways, he simply said, “Thank you. I really needed this. Thank you.”
As he walked away, I realized he wasn’t the only one who needed that conversation. I did too.
I was so busy trying to get where I needed to get and do what needed to get done that I almost missed what the whole flight was really about: an opportunity to be moved by compassion, to see someone else and to affected by them in a way that interrupts my plans and my priorities and that most certainly irrevocably alters my perspective. I needed to see that man that night, and I still need to see people today. Everyday. So do you. In the midst of wherever we are headed and in the midst of whatever we are doing, we need to really see people. We were not meant to simply sit quietly in our assigned space hoping to not be too bothered by those around us so we can accomplish whatever it is we think should fill our time. Our elbows ought to get bumped. Our personal space should be invaded. Our plans must be messed with. We need the divinely placed inconvenience of others to remind us what this whole thing called life is about: It’s about loving God and loving people. And we can’t really love people until we begin really seeing people like Jesus does.
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus saw people; He really saw people. Jesus saw people not as threats or problems or inconveniences or regrets. He saw them not just as they were, but also as they could be. He saw their flaws because because despite what we’ve been told, love is, in fact, not blind. He saw the flaws and welcomed them anyway. He saw people not as problems to be avoided, but mysteries to be explored. He saw people not as a means to His own agenda, but recipients of His passionate and furious love.
Jesus told the woman at the well everything she had done so she would know He knew her past and still welcomed her company. Jesus touched the leper to heal him because He knew the man needed not just his skin restored, but also his dignity. Jesus asked the woman caught in adultery where her accusers were because He knew she needed to verbalize for herself that she had none. Jesus not only healed the woman with the issue of blood but called her ‘daughter’ because He knew for twelve years she had been called ‘unclean’.
Jesus never just looked at people; He really saw them. Jesus’ compassion for others was universal in nature, but deeply personal in application. He loved the crowd, but He never treated individuals as if they were just another face in the crowd. He saw people, and the healing He brought them was wildly and profoundly unique to their individual needs.
Jesus was and still is the Master of seeing people…
And His life is a constant reminder that I’m not just a face in a crowd. I’m so much more than that. And so are you. So is the person sitting next to you on the subway or the co-worker two cubicles down from you or the neighbor across the street or the barista on the other side of the counter or the orphan on the other side of the world or the individual posting questionable comments on their Facebook page or the political candidate trying to improve their rating at the polls or the celebrity whose marital woes are featured on the cover of most magazines. No one is just a face in the crowd. No one. And no one should be treated as if they were.
Embracing the way of Christ means we become restorers of dignity to whomever we come in contact with. We seek to know people as spectacularly and scandalously saved by grace children of God, to see the intricately and divinely designed masterpieces they are, to recognize not just the temporal exterior but the eternal within, to understand both their triumphs and their tribulations, to welcome them as they are while believing wholeheartedly in who they could be, and to bestow upon them the same value that was forever set by the precious blood of Jesus on the cross.
Simply put, it is impossible to be a disciple of Jesus and not begin to see people radically different than before.
So go ahead, my friend, and venture to face the world with eyes wide open. Seek to really see those around you. Dare to open up your personal space to the needs of others. May your elbows get bumped and your ego a bit bruised if need be. May your plans get messed with by humanity in the best of ways. And may both you and those around you be brilliantly better for it.