Writer, editor, stumbler after Jesus

Standing up for myself in a sit-down sort of way

Some fifteen or so years later, I’d like to apologize to the guy sitting in the seat to the right in the row behind me. Or, at least, his wife. It’s just that, I was learning that to stand up for myself meant that sometimes I needed to insist on taking some things sitting down.

We were on the flight from London to Denver, and had just finished dinner. I eased my seat back into the reclining position gently, so as not to slosh the drink on the tray of the person behind me. That’s when there were several shoves on my headrest.

I looked around between the seats, and an old man to my right snapped, “Put your seat forward!” Bristling a bit, I asked him why. His wife, directly behind me, had some problem with her legs and needed the space, he told me.

Now, I was raised to be nice to children, strangers, and especially little old ladies. I was told this by a little old lady, but that’s by the by. Couple that instruction with an underdeveloped sense of self, and you have someone typically only too willing to concede, roll over, play dead. But not that day.

In part it was because I was heading home after a grueling trip and wanted to be able to snooze. But it was also a time when I was discovering, after years of invertebrate living, that having a heart didn’t have to mean giving up your spine. That being a “loving Christian” didn’t have to mean giving way to everyone: Jesus is the doorway, not a doormat.

I was also thinking to myself: That’s sad, but doesn’t make it my problem to fix. Couldn’t he have paid for an upgrade to first class if he was so concerned? If he didn’t want to pay more for his wife’s comfort, why does he expect me to give him some of the cost of my seat?

So I expressed some sympathy to the guy and his wife, but suggested this was maybe something for one of they stewardesses to sort out? Perhaps they could move them, or upgrade them? He just kept banging my headrest.

At this point, typically, I would have given in and slunk under the blanket, hoping no one was looking. But I had found my dander, and by golly it was in an upright position. So I buzzed for one of the stewardesses, and explained to her that the gentleman behind me seemed to have a problem he needed help with.

He told her what was going on, and was not happy when she said that I had every right to deploy my seat. And that, unfortunately, there were no spare seats elsewhere to which they could move. The man snorted, and in a loud voice described me as an anatomical part the Bible refers to as “unpresentable.” Before she departed, the stewardess murmured that it took one to know one, which I received as a measured vote of approval.

Clearly this was not one of my finest moments. But sometimes when we are learning to walk more confidently we are a bit wobbly, and may bump into other people.

If I were to face that situation again today, part of me would like to tell the man what, in hindsight, I wish I had said then: “That’s terrible. I can quite understand how, as a husband, you don’t want your wife to be in any discomfort. Here: let’s you and me change places, so you can sit in front of her and keep the seat forward, so she has all the room she needs, and I can sit next to her and find out more about you from her.”

But I think I’d actually do something else because that process of knowing who I am has continued. I’m at a place where I am more sure—though not certain—of myself. The Bible account of the Last Supper says that Jesus, knowing who He was and where He was going, then got up and put the towel round His waist to wash the disciples’ feet. Safe in Himself, he could freely be a servant.

So if I met that couple again I might just say, “So sorry to hear that. Of course, I’ll give you all the room I can.”

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