I had spent the night in an airport on a ten-hour layover, not quite as awful as it sounds but no rival for the much-anticipated comfort of my own home. Bleary-eyed as we took off at 7 AM—no one on the flight was what my father would have called “bright-eyed and bushy tailed”—I was glad to be on the way home and feeling agreeable. As we settled into our seats, the woman across the aisle dropped a rosary. It was easy enough for me to reach down and retrieve it for her—but that small act prompted a conversation between two weary travelers that spanned the entire flight.
We talked about our faith, of course, the dropped rosary having opened the door to a profound point of contact. We also talked about to and from where we were traveling. As it turned out, she had grown up near the city from which I was returning home. And I have lived for over two decades in the city she would be visiting for the first time. She was nervous about her new adventure (mostly about the weather, as the seasons had begun to turn, and she was making a northerly pilgrimage). I was glad to leave the agitation of my adventure behind for the peace that comes with returning home.
During that entire three-hour conversation, which ranged from talk about the weather to matters of deep spirituality, I do not think either of us thought to ask one another’s name. After the plane landed, we walked through the airport together for a while, until I pointed her in the direction of the baggage claim and then made my own way to the parking lot. We parted without remorse or contact information or any second thoughts about the fact that we would never see one another again. Yet for that three-hour flight, any outsider would have thought we were (or soon would be) lifelong friends. We connected, and, just as easily, we walked away.
In this world, where we often complain about how difficult it is to make connections—lamenting, for instance, how isolated we all have become due to video games, private transportation, home office and home delivery—we may also have come to romanticize the nature those imagined connections might take. Certainly, some connections are deep and life-long, while others never penetrate the immediate social surface. Still, there are other connections, ones which can be deeply genuine but last only as long as the brief stretch of a common journey. As much as we all need life-long relationships, these isolated stretches of shared humanity matter. In these moments, when we extend a brief flash of hospitality to a stranger, or receive this gift from another, we are at our most genuine. We are not investing in someone for hope of gain. We do not need to be recognized. Repayment cannot be expected. Instead, without the burden of worldly titles, anxieties, and identities, we can simply be ourselves.
There is no charming follow-up to this story. My fellow traveler and I did not exchange contact information or track one another down through unexpected mutual connections to become actual friends. We never knew each other’s name. The story ended at the escalator to baggage claim. She could have been anyone—a brilliant scientist whose work is admired by many or a lonely woman unknown even to her closest family. None of that mattered. The boons and obstacles that characterize an ongoing relationship were stripped away in the shared anonymity of economy class.
In a world dominated by wars and divisions, burdened by anxiety and isolation, these small stretches of shared humanity evoke a gentler language than popular culture speaks. The woman on my flight was one of countless people who have walked for only a moment on the path I am on, who have shared a part of themselves along the way, and in doing so, have made the walk both a little easier and a lot more enjoyable.