Spring 1998. A 2:30 Friday afternoon flight from Phoenix to Los Angeles, the flight taken by many business people trying to get home for the weekend.
I’m headed to California to visit Charlie, an old college friend. As you probably know, there are no reserved seats on Southwest Airlines. You show up for the cattle call and they herd you in by groups. I take a seat near the back of the plane. Three rows ahead of me in the aisle seat is a businessman in his mid 30’s. He’s reading a Wall Street Journal.
There’s a mild sense of frustration among the passengers, myself included, because the plane is late pushing away from the jet way. Just when we expect that to happen, a young family boards. A mom and a dad and a fussy two year old boy. There are no seats together so Mom sits with her son on her lap, directly across the aisle from Mr. Wall Street Journal. Dad sits directly ahead of him.
The little boy isn’t happy. Not screaming. Just a low level whine. Ever so slowly, he turns up his volume. Passengers begin looking in that direction. Finally, the doors close and we begin to taxi out to the runway. The little boy turns up his volume again and he’s getting some seriously annoyed looks from passengers, especially Mr. Wall Street Journal, who is now turning his pages with attitude.
Out on the runway the captain’s voice over the intercom tells us it will be a ten minute wait before we take off. Groans from the passengers. The little boy turns up his volume another notch. People are now seriously irritated. Mom is doing her best to entertain him but nothing is working. Dad is leaning back across the aisle trying to help, too. Mr. Wall Street Journal glares at both parents, rattling his newspaper and not so quietly commenting on how he wished the kid would be quiet.
In the middle of all this, the little boy starts to cry. A “this is the first time I’ve ever been on an airplane and I don’t want to do this” cry. He turns up the volume again. Everyone is dreading the prospect of a non-stop cry to Los Angeles.
Finally, we get off the ground. The Dad and Mom decide to switch places. He’s holding the boy and from my vantage point all I can see are two little legs sticking out into the aisle, flailing and kicking.
Then the little guy loses it. He freaks out. He red lines his volume.
And that’s when it all breaks loose.
Mr. Wall Street Journal spins his head toward the Dad, “Can’t you keep that kid quiet??!!” The Dad exercises enormous restraint, “I’m doing the best I can!” Mr. Wall Street Journal then says a little too loudly to no one in particular and everyone in general, “I didn’t pay for a ticket to listen to this all the way home!” and in the same instant slams his fist into the back of the seat in front of him where the little boy’s Mom is sitting. He hits it hard enough to break the latch on the tray table so it won’t stay in its locked and upright position.
Ever experience one of those flashpoint situations where everything happens at once?
In the microsecond after the passengers realize what has happened, public opinion swings 180 degrees in favor of the little guy. They turn on Mr. Wall Street Journal like a pack of wild dogs. They yell and hiss and in short order make him wish he would have rented a car to get home.
Then something wonderful happens. A kind, wonderful, spontaneous thing that changes the entire atmosphere on the plane. Rolling like a wave from the front to the back, over the top of the seats all you can see are hands filled with bounty from purses and tote bags and backpacks, passed from one row to the next. In less than a minute the Dad’s lap is overflowing with stuffed animals, candy and toys.
Thankfully, a few minutes later, the little guy falls asleep.
Kindness. It transformed the atmosphere on that plane from hostility to peace.
Whatever shape it takes and however it’s offered, kindness has the power to transform. A harsh and angry attitude can be calmed with kind words. A closed and fearful heart can learn to trust when surrounded with kindness. Kindness helps welcome new folks into the neighborhood. Kindness helps dispel our fears. Kindness gives people the courage to try again. Kindness helps people out of awkward situations. Kindness paves the way for reconciliation.
Perhaps kindness is transforming because it’s so surprising. We live in a reciprocal world. Be nice to me and I’ll be nice to you. Be mean to me and I’ll be mean to you. That’s why kindness is often unexpected. It catches people off guard.
This idea of transforming kindness was God’s idea. God is not reciprocal with us. In our faults and failures, God responds with kindness. God is kind toward sinners, which is to say God is kind to me and to you. (Romans 2:4; Ephesians 2:7) That’s certainly a surprise when we’re expecting to be punished. He desires that you and I extend the same kindness to those around us.
Do something wonderful today. Go surprise some people.
“…clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” – Colossians 3:12-14
Todd A. Thompson – February 21, 2006